Last October, Yale lecturer Erika Christakis sent an email questioning whether university administrators should advise students on what Halloween costumes to wear. It resulted in protests on campus and a heated debate around the country.
The fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, raises questions about the safety of similar facilities around the country. Concerns over how fertilizer plants are regulated and risks to the public.
- Allen Summers president, Asmark Institute.
- Ramit Plushnick-Masti environment reporter, The Associated Press.
- Daren Coppock president, The Agricultural Retailers Association.
- Jim Morris senior reporter, The Center for Public Integrity.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. There are over 6,000 fertilizer facilities around the country, like the one in West, Texas, and many are in close proximity to populated areas. Joining me to talk about safety questions raised by last week's deadly explosion: Jim Morris of The Center for Public Integrity, Daren Coppock of the Agricultural Retailers Association, and, joining us from the studios of KPFT in Houston, Texas, Ramit Plushnick-Masti of the Associated Press.
MS. DIANE REHMI know many of you have questions. Feel free to join us by phone at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JIM MORRISGood morning.
MS. RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTIGood morning.
MR. DAREN COPPOCKThank you.
REHMAnd, Ramit, let me begin with you. The investigation into the explosion has really just begun. But what's the latest?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIWell, at the moment, they're telling us very little. Residents are being slowly allowed back to their homes, and for the most part, it's those that are furthest away from the actual blast site. They're not telling us what they found or what they know. We have been told that they believe they know where the actual site of the blast is and that there's a crater there or something like a crater there. Other than that, we still don't have a cause for the explosion or any other details, really.
REHMNow, there were concerns initially that perhaps this was an intentional act of violence. Has that now been ruled out?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIAs far as I know, they are treating this as an industrial accident. They did say that until they complete the investigation or know otherwise that they would treat it as a crime scene, but my understanding is that it's really an industrial accident. That's what they believe.
REHMAnd you've been reporting on safety issues at the plant since the explosion. What have you learned about who regulated this facility?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIWell, what I've discovered is that regulation is kind of all over the place. So there is an office of the state chemists here in Texas, and they are primarily responsible for making sure that, for example, the fertilizer that's is being distributed to farmers and ranchers is, in fact, what it says it is. So they measure the nitrogen content and the other things that are in the fertilizer and make sure that the labeling is proper. They also know how much ammonium nitrate is at a facility, for example.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIAnd that is potentially explosive chemical. They also monitor closely and annually license these facilities for that ammonium nitrate. However, they are not necessarily communicating with others. Then there is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and they regulate anhydrous ammonia which they consider a flammable chemical. And they are regulating for air emissions. And they, of course, work with the EPA. But they don't necessarily talk to the EPA about everything they know and vice-versa.
PLUSHNICK-MASTISo the EPA has a risk management plan that they require. On that plan, for example, the West Fertilizer Company indicated that it did not have firewalls, sprinklers, other mitigation systems. But the TCEQ, the Texas environmental agency, says it requires those systems to have anhydrous ammonia. Yet one was not communicating with the other. And this is pretty much the trend. The Department of Homeland Security requires self-regulation.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIThey said that if this company had above a certain threshold of ammonium nitrate, they were suppose to tell the federal agency what they had on hand and be in contact with them. However, the DHS still doesn't know how much ammonium nitrate they had on hand. They don't know if they were violating that regulation. And when I asked them, well, how many other facilities could be avoiding the self-regulation. They said, we don't know.
REHMHow many inspections are required by any of these various agencies or by all of them to know precisely what is there? What safety precautions have been taken whether there are, say, sufficient sprinklers? I don't know what is required at plant that holds this kind of chemical, but what kinds of inspections are required?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIWell, there aren't really any required inspections that I've come across for safety aspects. So the Texas environmental agency, because they consider this a small polluter, they only inspect the facility if they get a complaint. So the last time they would have inspected this facility would have been in about 2006 when they received a complaint, and they resolved whatever problems they found at that time. And they don't send out an inspector unless they have a complaint.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIThe state's office of the chemist, they will come out annually in -- several times a year to run inspections. Some of them spot inspections. Some of them are planned inspections. But they are not looking for safety issues. They are looking specifically at the fertilizer and what is in there. And at the moment, none of us know how much ammonium nitrate was at that facility because it's not public information. And so we don't know.
REHMRamit Plushnick-Masti, she's environment reporter for the Associated Press. Daren Coppock, how do you see this? Was this a regulatory failure, a failure by the company itself to provide sufficient oversight? How do you see it?
COPPOCKWell, Diane, thanks for the invitation to be on the program.
COPPOCKI appreciate being here. And just a brief note for your listeners, what our association does is represent agricultural retailers so people who sell supplies to farmers, fertilizers other types of materials. This particular company was not a member of our association, and so we don't know them very well. But as I look at the situation, what -- we look at the web of regulations that surrounds fertilizer products.
COPPOCKAnd there are a number of federal agencies, about a half a dozen of them, that have some role to play either with ammonium nitrate or with anhydrous ammonia, and this facility reported having both on the property and equipment to store and handle both. So what we're really interested in knowing is, with that web of regulation that's out there, how could this have happened? How could this tragedy have taken place?
COPPOCKAnd certainly, somebody made some mistakes. I think there were some mistakes made at the company level. There were probably some mistakes made at the regulatory level, with agencies failing to follow up on regulations or punishing violations if they found them. We're really interested to see what happens when the Chemical Safety Board report comes out to see exactly where the deficiencies were, and we'll try to learn those lessons and apply them as best we can.
REHMAs I understand it, there are some 6,000 plants like this around the country. Would they all be subject to the same kinds of regulations? Would they all have been missed by regulators? What do you see?
COPPOCKWell, anybody who stores at least 400 pounds of pure ammonium nitrate...
REHMFour hundred pounds.
COPPOCKFour hundred pounds...
COPPOCK...or 2,000 pounds of what's called agricultural-grade ammonium nitrate has to submit a report to the Department of Homeland Security CFATS program. And once they submit that report that's called a top screen, then DHS looks at that, decides if they think that they're a high-risk facility or not. And if they are, then that company provides what's called a security vulnerability assessment, and it dictates, here are the things that we see as potential risks. Here are the measures we have in placed to mitigate those risks...
REHMBut how often are those inspections made?
COPPOCKWell, that's a really good question because the CFATS program has been in place for at least five years. We've had some members that have turned in these SVA at least two years ago. In fact, one of our larger members said, here's one for our first plant. Can you tell us if we're on the right track so that as we do them once for all of our other plants, we'll know what to add, what to subtract? There's been no response from DHS to this point.
REHMJim Morris of The Center for Public Integrity, what do you see going on here?
MORRISI think we also need to look at the role of OSHA in this investigation. It's been reported that they had not...
REHMYet one more agency.
MORRISOne more agency on top of the others. It's been reported that they had not been into this plant since 1985, 28 years ago, and had issued a very minor citation when they did get in there. And this is the area I'm most familiar with. I've done a lot on reporting on the challenges that OSHA faces. They're just, you know, grossly overstretched, overmatched. They don't have nearly enough inspectors, and I think this points at the hazards of that situation.
REHMSo what are the requirements as far as an agency like OSHA is concerned, just one agency and one plant? How often is OSHA expected to inspect a single plant?
MORRISWell, it's hard to say how often they're expected to. I mean, if there is a complaint, if there is a serious accident like this, of course...
REHMSo they just leave it go if there are no complaints.
MORRISRight. I mean, well, not always, but certainly, that happens a lot. You know, the statistics that's often cited is they would, you know, it takes OSHA, on average, 130 years to get to every, you know, facility in this country because it's so grossly understaffed. They do about 40,000 inspections a year, but that just scratches the surface.
REHMSo we wait for a tragedy like this to occur, which raises consciousness and then raises the awareness of what should be done. Jim Morris of The Center for Public Integrity, Darren Coppock, he is president of the Agriculture Retailers Association, and Ramit Plushnick-Masti of the Associated Press. Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the explosion that took place in the small town of West, Texas a week ago, which injured at least 200 and took the lives of 14 people. I wonder, as you look at the situation, Ramit, and you hear about these -- this conglomerate of regulations that seem to be in place but don't necessarily communicate with each other, what are inspectors, say, at OSHA looking for when they go into a plant like this if there's been some kind of complaint? Are they looking for leaks? Are they looking for cracks? What are they looking for?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIOSHA specifically would be looking for typically any kind of safety concern that can harm the workers. So it could be any number of things from, you know, just a rickety structure to other things. The environmental agency, they are only responsible for anhydrous ammonia, and they would be looking for leaks. And they would resolve any kind of leak that they found, and they would issue a citation possibly for whatever they find.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIYou know, the EPA is typically looking for the same kind of thing. The Office of the State Chemist is looking for labeling issues, but they are not looking at safety. DHS would be -- the Department of Homeland Security, they are the ones that would be responsible for safety, I believe. However, there is no, you know, there is no real regulation here. They've been working on a regulation that would require the states to then report to the federal government, and there would be some kind of structure.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIThat's been in a public comment period now for over a year, and that's never become rule. So, you know, there's a hodgepodge of things going on, but it's unclear really who's responsible for safety. I spoke to one fertilizer plant that said he has ammonium nitrate in his facility, and he's spoken to the local fire chief about a possible evacuation plan in the case of an emergency. But there's nothing in writing. And it doesn't appear that there is any requirement that that exists, that there be a document for an emergency.
REHMJim Morris, talk about the two chemicals there, ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia. How widely are they used? How dangerous are they?
MORRISI'm not sure I'm the best one to talk to about how widely used they are. I know that anhydrous ammonia is a gas that can be toxic and, I think, under certain circumstances, flammable, correct? Extreme circumstances.
REHMBut it's used -- both these chemicals are used a great deal in farming?
MORRISThey are. Anhydrous ammonia is stored as a liquid under pressure. That's how it's applied if it's applied in its pure form. But it's also the building block of a number of other fertilizer products that people will manufacture at manufacturing facilities, including liquid fertilizers and various other forms. It's -- so it's very much foundational to the fertilizer industry.
MORRISThe infrastructure that we have to move fertilizer around relies a lot on anhydrous ammonia. Ammonium nitrate is also an important fertilizer, especially in certain types of cropping systems or soil types. It's applied dry and is stored dry. Under normal circumstances, neither one of them will present a hazard.
MORRISEven ammonium nitrate has to be mixed with some kind of an organic compound before it's -- it will detonate and has to have an outside source of the spark to make it explode. So if it's handled correctly, both of them are safe. But, you know, with incidents like this, the whole industry is looking to see what can we do to further improve the practices that we used to make sure this doesn't ever happen again.
REHMDoes that mean you might look for some substitute? If this is such a potentially dangerous substance, why use it?
MORRISIn the cases where it's used, it's because of a specific agronomic or economic need. Anhydrous ammonia, when it's put on, it's shanked into the ground, and so the field has to be actually tilled. You can't just go out onto it like a grass pasture, for example, and put ammonia in the ground because you can't get the shanks to go into the ground to do it.
MORRISSo a dry fertilizer is applied, and if you need nitrogen, you go to something like ammonium nitrate because it's high in nitrogen. A number of our members have looked for other options, and they're switching to liquids, they're switching to other types of things that will fill the bill. But ultimately, as in any business, the supplier provides what the customer wants. If the customer wants nitrate, that's what they provide.
REHMAnd joining us now is Allen Summers. He's president of the Asmark Institute. That's a company that helps agricultural retailers comply with regulations. He works with 2,000 fertilizer facilities. Good morning to you, Allen.
MR. ALLEN SUMMERSGood morning, Diane. Thank you for the opportunity to be on the show.
REHMCertainly. Tell me what your reaction to -- was to the explosion last week. Do you believe there was a lack of regulation going on here?
SUMMERSDiane, no, I don't believe there was a lack of regulation going on here. For our typical client base, like -- West Fertilizer is not a client of ours, and I don't have -- don't -- not very familiar with their location. But they would be very typical of the clients that we do have and that we work with.
SUMMERSBut those clients -- agricultural retailers like that basically have around four to 500 different regulatory requirements that they're required to comply with, and it maybe OSHA, EPA, DOT, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Agriculture. And there's about half a dozen organizations -- agencies that regulate this industry very closely.
REHMNow, I gather you work with some 2,000 similar facilities. Is it common for these plants to be so close to the people? For example, nursing homes, schools, small businesses. How come?
SUMMERSWell, typically if you look at it, agriculture is one of the oldest industries in the world. And basically because agriculture happens out in the country, these facilities are in the country, and the communities grow around many of these fertilizer plants. And so it's not the fertilizer plant that's located in close proximity to the public, it's the public that kind of grows around the fertilizer plants over the last 30, 40 or 50 years.
REHMRamit, is that what happened in West, Texas?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIIn West Texas, that is what happened, and that is the case in many of these rural communities. And these fertilizer plants are very crucial for the economy there. You know, a farmer cannot -- and a rancher very often, they can't do their business without these fertilizers. What happens is is that there are some regulations about proximity, but not many.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIAnd very often, that's left up to local zoning authorities. And in Texas, for example, zoning is typically minimal. It's part of the culture here. And so you do end up with fertilizer plants that have potentially dangerous chemicals in them very close to population centers.
REHMWere there any concerns, Ramit, expressed by members of the community about the proximity?
PLUSHNICK-MASTII'm not aware of any concerns that the community expressed. I mean, this is a way of life. This is what they've always known. They did have to get a special permit from the Texas Environmental Agency for that anhydrous ammonia because they were less than 3,000 feet from that school, from the middle school that was there. But they received that permit, so that was the only consideration that I'm aware of.
REHMAllen Summers, do you believe this should change?
REHMDo you believe that this should change? Do you think that the zoning requirements ought to allow for greater distance between these plants and the communities around them?
SUMMERSNo, I don't think the zoning laws are key to this argument. Basically, every facility -- and I haven't seen firsthand, but I have seen reports that West Fertilizer filed what's called a SARA Title III Tier II report, and that's a hazardous material inventory report. And they would have filed that every March 1, and that -- the sole purpose of that report, it's required by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know-Act, goes back to the mid-'80s.
SUMMERSAnd it was put in place by Congress so that fertilizer plants and industrial plants and anyone in the country that has hazardous material inventories on site report those materials on site to their local fire departments, their Local Emergency Planning Committee and their State Emergency Response Commission annually.
REHMNow, you're a farmer. You own a small fertilizer retail facility. How often is your plant inspected there in Kentucky?
SUMMERSWe have -- we're inspected by an agency of some type monthly, more than one time a month, and sometimes during -- especially during season can be weekly.
REHMAnd what kinds of inspections are they doing?
SUMMERSTypically, it'll be the fire marshal or the Department of Agriculture. It's not uncommon to have an OSHA inspection, someone drop in and inspect the facility, as well as you have insurance carriers that -- actually, they're interested in making sure that the plant is safe. And EPA is very, very common for a risk management program or RMP audits to occur.
REHMAnd what kind of emergency plans have you developed with your own town there in Kentucky?
SUMMERSOK. Every facility that we work with -- there's actually, in the United States, there's two requirements for emergency plans, and both of them are required by OSHA. One of them is an emergency action plan, and that's all about the safe exit and egress of employees if there is a tragedy or an emergency. The other type of emergency plan is an emergency response plan, and that's geared towards the response of the facility towards the actions that they'll take to a release or spill or fire or some other type of emergency like that.
REHMAll right. And, Ramit, do I understand correctly that the Department of Homeland Security was or was not aware of the ammonium nitrate at the West, Texas, facility?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIThe Department of Homeland Security was not informed of the ammonium nitrate at that facility. The Texas State Department of Health has on file a report from that facility that says it can store up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, and that report was filed with them in 2012. It is not clear that that is actually how much they had at their facility. We don't know.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIWe have asked the Office of the State Chemist to release that information, and we've been told that we have to get special permission by the attorney general for that because, I believe since 9/11, they now regulate very closely how that information is released because they do not want the ammonium nitrate to get into the wrong hands.
REHMRamit Plushnick-Masti, environmental reporter for the Associated Press. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Allen Summers, I want to thank you for joining us this morning.
SUMMERSThank you, Diane.
REHMAll right. And we're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, first to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Elizabeth. You're on the air.
ELIZABETHHi. Good morning, everyone. Just a comment and a question is I think a big angle of it is the fact that Texas has always been very company-friendly. And, in other words, they look the other way, and you can imagine what else. The positive, to be fair, is that, yes, they bring in a lot of jobs. What we need here is respect, you know, and look at it at what price to bring in all these jobs?
ELIZABETHSo, to me, it's the fault of government, and it's the -- you know, Republicans or who -- you know, the government, all of -- the government of Texas and the company to take advantage of this. So my question is if your guests can comment on any obstacles they're aware of that regulators have encountered when trying to regulate companies in Texas.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIYou know, regulation is an issue in Texas. As you mentioned, Texas is proud of the fact that it has fewer regulations. Once they're in place, I don't believe that there are obstacles put in the path of an inspector or of an agency to enforce any regulation. They can, and, you know, they have the ability to do that. But, you know, it is a state by state thing, and Texas has different regulations, sometimes fewer regulations than some other states, and, you know, that is something that the governor has mentioned many times as part of his beliefs during regulation.
MORRISYou know, one thing I'd like to point out, too, is the weakness of the federal worker protection law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Some members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have tried to strengthen that law for a number of years. They're trying again this year. Right now, if you violate an environmental law, you could end up in prison for years. If you commit an egregious act as an employer that results in the death of a worker, the most you're facing is six months in jail. It's a misdemeanor.
REHMJim, the EPA cited the plant for not having an up-to-date risk management plan. What is the plan? What are its limitations?
MORRISYou -- I'm not as familiar with that part.
REHMHow about you, Ramit? Are you aware?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIYes. They did file that risk management plan. They were cited initially for not having it in a timely manner, and they did. That risk management plan includes a variety of scenarios of, you know, emergency measures or emergency action that they might have to take. None of those included fire or explosion. So that was not in their risk management plan.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIIt included leaks. It included a situation where, say, one of the trucks that's delivering the anhydrous ammonia were to disconnect quickly and cause a leak, how they would react to these different scenarios. Fire and explosion is not included in that.
COPPOCKThank you. The risk management plan is actually done under the Clean Air Act, and so only things that would be an air quality problem, such as anhydrous ammonia, if it escaped, would be subject to that plan. Ammonium nitrate, since it's stored dry, is not subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act, and that's why it wasn't mentioned in the RMP.
COPPOCKAs far as the earlier question about obstacles to regulation, I can tell you that at the federal level, I mentioned the DHS thing earlier, but we've also supported Secure Handling Act. It's been in law since 2007. We're still trying to get a rule done on that bill.
REHMAll right. Short break here. And when we come back, more of your calls, questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the explosion in West, Texas, a week ago where 14 people died, more than 200 injured. Here's an email that says, "I don't think we should lay all the blame at the feet of the government agencies. The owners and operators of these facilities are aware of the regulations. It seems they may have abandoned their integrity and responsibility in the pursuit of profit." How fair a point is that, Ramit?
PLUSHNICK-MASTII don't want to comment on whether or not it's fair because we don't know what the outcome of the investigation is. We don't know what caused that explosion. We don't know if it was negligence. We don't know if it was a complete accident, a confluence of different things that may have occurred. We don't know, so I don't think we can say who's to blame and why.
REHMAll right. Here's a follow-up from Linda in Falls Church, "Please compare the West accident and Boston disaster responses. In Boston, four people were killed, 170 injured. In West, 14 or more killed, over 200 injured. In Boston, thousands of federal, state and local law enforcements mobilized to deal with the problem once the explosion took place to capture or kill two people. What kind of response is going on to deal with the problem of fertilizer plants?" Ramit.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIThere are federal and state investigators and agencies on-site in West, Texas. It does not compare to what's going on in Boston. And that, you know, probably has something to do with an emotional aspect of what happened in Boston. You know, West, Texas is a tragedy. There are many more people killed.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIIt's something that needs to be investigated and resolved, but it's believed to be an industrial accident. And the key word there, I guess, would be accident, whereas in Boston, it's been labeled terrorism and, of course, that generates a whole other set of emotions and reactions both from the government and from society at-large.
REHMAll right. To Richmond, Va. Good morning, Martin.
MARTINYes. Good morning. Love the show, by the way. And my question is this, in the case of homeland security, ignorance is really not an excuse because if I were to be driving from point A to point B, I am unsure of the speed limit, and I happen to be going over that limit, whether there was sign or not, I get a speeding ticket, you know?
MARTINAnd the police officer will say, well, I apologize you didn't know what the speed limit was, but, nevertheless, you broke the law. Therefore -- now, shouldn't they be held accountable for some degree for not knowing how much? I mean, if I were to Google ammonium nitrate plants, I bet I can find a whole bunch. And I'm sure they have access to much more search engines than the common person does in the United States.
COPPOCKI think his point is right. Ignorance of the law is no excuse when you're driving your car, and it's no excuse when you're running an agricultural business either. But I think -- I would also hearken back to Ramit's earlier comment, if they are found by the investigation to have neglected to report, to have neglected to do the things to the facility that they needed to do, to take care of the material it stored, then yes, they should be held accountable. But let's find out what really happened.
REHMI think that the question that the emailer raised is, how much attention will be paid to this explosion trying to get to the bottom of it? I realize, Ramit, in one case you're talking an act of terrorism, as the president called it, in another what may have been an industrial accident. But if the industrial accident occurs because of lack of oversight, lack of attention to detail, then an awful lot of attention, it seems to me, should be paid.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIYes. And I think that, you know, as the investigation, you know, unfolds and both the public and the media become aware of the different aspects of the investigation and the results of the investigation that it will become something that is a focus of attention. And there could -- we could see changes both to regulation to oversight, maybe not more regulation, maybe different regulation.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIMaybe it's just not regulated correctly, and we might see more coordination or more efforts to coordinate and to put that into some form of writing. But, yeah, I believe that this investigation could put more focus on some of these incidents.
REHMAll right. To Acton, Mass. Hi there, Wayne.
WAYNEHi, Diane and guests. And I thought I want to echo what your caller earlier from Dallas had to say, and my question is, doesn't this raise the issue of sort of the ideological public policy opposition to regulation in general? And I think, you know, certainly the Republican Party is opposed -- I would say more so than the Democrats -- to regulation and uses underfunding of regulatory agencies to limit or restrict or, as one of your guests have said, or people have raised the question of obstacles to regulation.
WAYNEIf you underfund these organizations that are chartered to check ammonium plants or underground mining facilities, then the regulations are much more difficult to enforce.
REHMPolitics involved here, Jim Morris?
MORRISI think so. People may not realize that about 4,600 Americans are killed on the job every year in accidents like this or, in many cases, a much lower-profile accidents. And as I said earlier, attempts to strengthen the federal worker safety law have failed every time, and there's no reason to expect that it'll succeed this year.
REHMAll right. To Carlisle, Pa. Jason, you're on the air.
JASONHello, Diane. It's a pleasure to talk to you.
JASONMy question kind of, I guess, it's going to kind of take a back step and not necessarily focus necessarily on what exactly happened in West, Texas. My question is I do a lot of work with local organic farmers. I'm a chef, and from what I've gathered from them and from the studies that I've done -- now, I'm not -- I'm no professor or anything, but I understand there's a fair amount of nitrogen that's in the air.
JASONAnd that using clover, legumes or things like that that can pull the nitrogen out of the air and into the soil for you could actually, you know, reduce some of the nitrogenated soil that needs to be produced. I've heard a lot of your guests saying these agricultural facilities need this. And do you think that's kind of a marketing of like the big agro businesses that tell you need this, that you have to have this chemical?
REHMAnd to follow-up on Jason's point, here's an email from Kevin in Baltimore, who says, "After this explosion, maybe farmers will consider going organic. Without using these dangerous chemicals, there would be no chance of explosions." Daren.
COPPOCKWell, a lot of people have been going to organic systems, and they're growing in popularity, but they're still an extremely small part of our overall food picture, and the reason for that is several things. One is that they don't produce as much food. And so as we're moving toward a situation where globally we need to feed 9 billion people in about 30 years and produce as much food as we produce cumulatively over the last 10,000 years, we need to find systems that will maximize production while still taking care of the environment.
COPPOCKAnd if you look at the literature, the scientific literature comparing conventional versus organic systems, there is at least a 25 percent reduction in yield across the board, all crops, all things taken into consideration, moving to an organic system. The other piece of that is that in order to run the organic fertilizer, you have to basically import manure into your system to get enough fertilizer, and there's just not enough places to get enough organic fertilizer to do that.
COPPOCKThe other point about clover and other legumes that can fix nitrogen is certainly true. That's why soybeans requires a lot less nitrogen productions because they actually fix their own, but those plants that produce nitrogen that way also consume water. And in places like Texas, water is the limiting factor in what you can grow.
REHMAnd here's an email from Tom, who describes himself as a retired engineer. He says, "One of you guests made a very serious technical error. Ammonium nitrate is thermodynamically unstable as demonstrated in the 1947 Texas City disaster. Please correct his incorrect statement." Did you make that, Daren?
COPPOCKWhat I said was, if it's stored under normal conditions, it's safe. In order to detonate, it has to be mixed with some kind of an organic compound, something like diesel fuel, and there has to be an external explosion source and ignition that causes the detonation. It will not detonate on itself. In fact, it could even be burning and still not detonate.
REHMRamit, do you have any comment?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIAs far as I know, that is correct. It does need to be mixed with something else, and it does need an external ignition source. However, the reason why the United States has made efforts since 9/11 to keep it out of the hands of the wrong people is because it is and can be used as a cheap explosive and has been used numerous times by militants in a variety of places, including Gaza and the West Bank, to build suicide bomber -- suicide bombs. It is a cheap explosive.
REHMRamit, what about the manner in which the town responded to the emergency? Is that part of the ongoing investigation?
PLUSHNICK-MASTII would imagine that they will look at that as well. It appears, you know, on the face of it, from what we know right now, that they responded quite well. They set up a nice triage center at the nearby football stadium. They, you know, had emergency responders coming from around and it was quick. And from the size of the explosion and the size of the area that was really destroyed, 14 people killed, is pretty amazing. So it's a lower number than what's expected initially.
REHMWasn't there some question about the fire department's use of water?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIThere were some questions about whether or not they were supposed to use water on anhydrous ammonia. You know, from everything that I have been told -- and, of course, I'm not a chemist -- but from everything I have been told, there was nothing wrong with that. That, in fact, I was told by the Office of the State Chemist that in all the training that they undergo, you do use water because anhydrous ammonia can actually burn your skin. It's like a chemical burn.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIAnd so before you would even go in to treat a spill, you would first wet the valves and stuff before sending somebody in. It doesn't appear that there was anything wrong that I'm aware of with the use of water.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Caller in Oklahoma City. Hi there, Jeff.
JEFFHi, Diane. I love your show.
JEFFI, actually, grew up nearby and went to the plant in West several times a year with my grandfather and my father, and it wasn't just a fertilizer plant. They actually stored grain there. So the farmers would go there to actually get their fertilizer and then maybe go back there to sell their grain. And the plant had been there, I believe, since 1957. My father was telling me that he had been going there since he could remember. And as a child, I remember that the town was actually not near the plant. It was only during the '80s and '90s and 2000s.
JEFFBut the residential area started to grow up near the plant itself. So, you know, you're talking about the plant itself and the fact that as my grandfather mentioned earlier that, you know, it had been -- perhaps been there long time like many of these plants have been part of that was due to the proximity to the railroad. But I think there's a larger zoning code question about building residential buildings and schools near the plant. Obviously, there was a complacency in our town -- and like I said, I'm from there -- because there hadn't been any sort of accident in the past.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIThe plant has been there since 1962. And yes, it is an older facility. And it's true that for years, you know, it was kind of isolated from everything else and over the years, it did grow. I don't know exactly when the apartment complex nearby and the nursing home were built. I believe the middle school was just built a few years ago.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIAnd they were built very close to that facility, and that has to do with local zoning. That has to do with the decisions that's made on the county or the city level about where they want to put things and how they make those decisions, and why it could be based on, you know, things as simple as how much space do we have to separate industrial areas from residential areas.
REHMAnd one last email. "How is this dangerous product transported? Could a train derailment or truck accident endanger unsuspecting citizens?" Daren.
COPPOCKSure. Any time you have an accident, you can have problems that are unforeseen. Each one of these products, both ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, are required to have transportation plans by the DOT. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requires you to have those documents in place. So there's a lot of thought that goes into how they're moved. The drivers that drive those trucks have to have CDLs and hazmat endorsements. So DOT does a pretty thorough job of regulating those products in transit.
PLUSHNICK-MASTIYeah. They are regulated. And at one point, the Department of Transportation's pipeline agency, PHMSA, did, in fact, cite this particular agency. It was just, I believe, less than a year ago that they were cited by them, initially $10,000. And after they resolved some of the issues, that fine was cut almost in half, 250/250. So they do regulate that. But if there is an accident, yeah, that could easily ignite ammonium nitrate.
REHMYou know, it does sound as -- so there are many of these aging plants around the country. God forbid, are you expecting others that could have similar accident because they are in the same kind of condition as that in West, Texas, Ramit?
PLUSHNICK-MASTIWell, you know, older facilities require more maintenance, and most of the facilities that -- I know, in Texas, a lot of these facilities are fairly old. So, you know, I guess anything is possible. Would I expect it? I would hope not, but they do, you know, the older a facility -- just like the refineries in the country are very old. The older a facility, the more maintenance.
REHMAll right. Ramit Plushnick-Masti, environment reporter for The Associated Press, Daren Coppock, president at The Agricultural Retailers Association and Jim Morris of The Center for Public Integrity. Thank you all so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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