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World-Herald editorial: Chemicals and dangers

World-Herald editorial: Chemicals and dangers

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Last week’s deadly explosions at a Texas fertilizer plant show the potential dangers of chemical compounds that are vital in farm country.

It is human nature to take stock at such times and wonder whether the dozens of places in the Midlands that store and sell bulk fertilizer are safe to live around, work near or visit.

By most accounts, they are, officials say. Facilities are required to follow a complex set of state and federal regulations meant to keep compounds such as ammonium nitrate from becoming dangerous.

There is no definitive word yet on just what happened inside the West Fertilizer Co. plant before the blast that killed at least 14 people and injured more than 200. Investigators on Monday were still trying to locate the source of the fire behind the explosion.

Ammonium nitrate has been deployed with terrible results in acts like the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. But experts told World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel that the fertilizer is typically stable and safe when properly stored.

That’s why state and federal authorities need to find answers to several questions about what contributed to the Texas blast, be it a regular fire that reached propane tanks, too much fertilizer in storage or some other lapse in human judgment.

As Hammel’s reporting noted, it is unusual for a fertilizer storage facility to be the site of an explosion. Fertilizer accidents usually occur during the manufacturing process, as it did during the deadly 2001 blast at a fertilizer factory in Toulouse, France. Or they occur while the fertilizer is being transported.

If storage practices ultimately come into question, it makes sense to ask whether schools and nursing homes should be located so close to large amounts of stored fertilizer, as they were in Texas. Other important questions involve whether local firefighters — volunteers, in the Texas case — had enough training to handle such hazardous materials in a fire.

It’s encouraging that the Nebraska Agri-Business Association, a trade group of fertilizer and agricultural chemicals dealers, says it works to keep local fire departments apprised of what’s being stored in their facilities. And annual hazardous materials training is conducted, another good step.

Ultimately, Congress will need to weigh whether any one federal agency was ultimately responsible for making sure the chemicals and compounds at the Texas plant were safely stored. Initial news reports seem to indicate that inspection duties at the site belonged to multiple agencies.

It is sad that it often takes an accident to spur such reviews. But much of the regulation now in place came in response to earlier blasts in places such as Port Neal, Iowa, where 5,700 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded. The Texas plant stored just 270 tons, although it also produced anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer used by farmers across much of the Midlands.

A reasoned response that looks to enhance safety, while considering the importance of the jobs these plants, sales and storage facilities provide, would serve all parties well.

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