The fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas last week that killed at least 14 and caused injuries to over 200 others is now the scene of a methodical search for the cause. There is plenty to be learned at the site but the proximity of residents to the plant is already coming under questioning. There has been local editorializing on the issue and Purdue University extension safety specialist Dr. Bill Field is concerned as well.
“There’s always the potential for some problem to occur whenever you’ve got a concentration of any kind of agricultural chemical.”
Field notes the move in some areas to locate residential housing, apartment buildings and even schools close to these facilities.
“Many of them historically were located outside of town and there’s a reason for that. It allowed for when there was unintentional releases of ammonia or other products that they would be dissipated very quickly, which does occur on a regular basis. Small amounts of ammonia are released and that often times is one of the major complaints that nearby residents have is they smell ammonia. The question is should we be building new homes and new housing in close proximity to these operations or should there be zones of protection?”
Here in Indiana there is good oversight by the Indiana State Chemist and the industry itself.
“The State Chemist office in Indiana does an incredible job of getting out and making sure that the facilities are inspected, and I think that there is an ongoing relationship with those that manufacture and distribute fertilizer, including the transport of it. Look at the industry and the State Chemist office and both of those parties are engaged and trying to make this handling of anhydrous ammonia or other agricultural chemicals safe. Why? Because I think everyone wants to be a good neighbor here and no one wants to see any potential losses because as you can imagine the civil losses associated with the West, Texas incident are going to be incredible.”
Field’s experience suggests most managers of similar facilities are working hard at keeping the workplace safe and free from accidents.