Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

April 23, 2013

Texas tragedy raises local questions

Rob Cox
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Roger DuMond has been closely reading about and watching the developments in West, Texas, since a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant there leveled part of the town April 17.

Of course, with the bombing at the Boston Marathon two days earlier, there’s been no amount of bad news and tragedy to hold DuMond’s attention — or anyone else’s. DuMond, though, has more incentive than the average citizen to stay abreast of the accident in West.

As Safety and Health Compliance Manager for Greensburg’s Kova Fertilizer, DuMond has heard low rumblings around town, suggesting some may be wondering if a devastating explosion such as this could happen here.

DuMond spoke briefly with the Daily News Monday afternoon to help set the record straight and, hopefully, to allay public fears of such an accident.

With a complete lack of inside information regarding the West accident, DuMond’s done his best, sifting through news accounts, to piece the accident together.

He’s thus come to suspect that the substance responsible for the West explosion is ammonium nitrate, an otherwise innocuous fertilizer that transforms into a deadly, highly-volatile explosive when mixed with the right chemicals.  

More, he added, turning ammonium nitrate into an explosive requires a very specific set of steps, and it’s therefore difficult to imagine an explosion the size of the one in West occurring completely by accident.

He conceded though, that such an accident wouldn’t be completely impossible, but would require an extremely unfortunate chain of events to come together, along with a degree of negligence or incompetence to create such a tragedy.

He stressed, however, that all of the above amounts to complete supposition on his part.

He offered an unqualified assessment of ammonium nitrate.

“You could put a bag of ammonium nitrate on your desk right now,” he said. “You could drop it on the floor, stomp on it, pound it with a hammer, and it wouldn’t do anything. It’s only when you mix it with the right ingredients that it becomes an explosive.”

In the end, so far as Kova in Greensburg is concerned, all this analysis amounts to much ado about nothing.

“We don’t carry or deal in ammonium nitrate,” DuMond said. “We haven’t since shortly after the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma.”

The bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah building, April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, was constructed using ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Afterward, long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the government, according to DuMond, established “a whole bunch of additional regulations regarding the sale of ammonium nitrate.”

“At that time, we made the business decision that we’d no longer handle the product,” he added. “For the amount that we regularly acquired and sold, all the regulations made it no longer worthwhile.”

DuMond expressed near certainty that Kova isn’t the only local fertilizer dealer who long ago discontinued the sale of ammonium nitrate. “I don’t think anyone in Greensburg or Decatur County sales it,” he said, “not Premiere AG, Crop Production Services or Helena — no one that I’m aware of.”

Greensburg Fire Chief Scott Chasteen added that another key difference between the company in Texas and local fertilizer operations is that, "in West, Texas, they were manufacturing the stuff. Here in Decatur County, we don't have any fertilizer manufacturers — only dealers."

DuMond was adamant that no other fertilizer Kova deals in — no other fertilizer period — has the potential to be turned into an explosive, making the chances of an explosion in Greensburg like the one in West virtually zero. Chasteen agreed.

DuMond was quick to add, though, that having no risk of an ammonium nitrate explosion doesn’t mean there’s no risk of an accident or need of regulation.

“For example,” he said, “if you transport gasoline — or any other potentially hazardous chemical — via tanker trucks, you have to report that and be monitored.”

Indeed, DuMond pointed out that Kova and numerous other businesses in Decatur County report to several agencies on the state, local and Federal levels.

“The EPA has something called the ‘Community Right to Know Regulation,” he said. “If there’s an operation in the midst of a community that uses hazardous products, the community has a ‘right to know’ about those products. The EPA requires an annual report under Right to Know regarding what products we have and how much. That’s the same for any business dealing with hazardous chemicals.”

In addition, Kova regularly works with the Greensburg Fire Department and the Decatur County Local Environmental Planning Commission to both catalogue hazardous substances and to create emergency plans.

Chasteen confirmed that, saying, "We regularly tour their facility, and they provide us with an annual report of all their hazardous or potentially hazardous substances and the amounts."

Accidents, DuMond said, can happen anywhere, anytime to any business or to anyone; they can happen at home, too.

“A 20 pound propane cylinder in your backyard presents a potential accident,” he said. “Whether or not an accident actually occurs is largely a matter of intent and safe, knowledgeable handling of the dangers.”

Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011