For Mid-Columbia fertilizer plants, it's safety first

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldMay 25, 2013 

The oversight and inspections at Finley's two fertilizer plants set them in stark contrast to the West Fertilizer Co. in Texas, where an explosion last month killed 15 people and injured 180.

Tessenderlo Kerley and Agrium -- two of about a dozen fertilizer plants in Washington -- have numerous state officials peering over their shoulders, making sure everything from employees to groundwater are as safe as possible, they say.

The companies are visited at least annually by state inspectors, and the companies say they perform their own internal safety audits and rigorous safety exercises. Federal agencies also oversee the Finley plants but don't do on-site inspections as often as the state.

Federal and Texas investigators have not been able to determine the cause of the explosion at retailer West Fertilizer Co., but reports have shown the facility had no full inspection for seven years by any of the multiple state and federal agencies responsible for overseeing it. Regulators relied instead on self-reporting.

Robbie Inouye, Tessenderlo Kerley plant manager in Finley, said he's worked in several states and Washington has the most extensive regulations. They serve a purpose and still allow the company to be able to operate, he said.

A Herald investigation found that the Mid-Columbia's fertilizer manufacturers have had no serious violations, fires or fatalities in the past decade.

While officials say what ignited the blaze in Texas may never be known, the explosion has raised the question of how other communities across the nation can be assured that the fertilizer manufacturers and retailers near their homes are safe.

There are almost 2,000 homes within a 3-mile radius of Agrium's manufacturing plant in Finley, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The answer is in the companies' track records, said Capt. Mike Harris with Benton Fire District 1. Tessenderlo Kerley and Agrium have had few issues in 28 years, he said.

Firefighters have been on site for regular medical calls and to do walk-throughs to help plan for potential emergencies. Overall, officials say the track record here for both manufacturers is good.

"I would consider them good stewards for their industry," Harris said.

A growing demand

Fertilizer is a necessity for farmers, who use it to grow an estimated $9.4 billion worth of crops in the state. Many of Washington's 300 crops are grown in the Mid-Columbia, including apples, cherries, grapes, chickpeas, potatoes and blueberries.

Fertilizer is part of what has allowed farmers to increase yields and create an affordable, abundant food supply, said Jim Fitzgerald, executive director for the Far West Agribusiness Association, a Spokane trade organization that represents agribusinesses in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

Nationwide, fertilizer manufacturing is more than a $10 billion industry, with a little less than half being exported, Fitzgerald said, and another $13 billion in fertilizer is imported each year.

The fertilizer industry is expected to grow as natural gas prices stabilize in the U.S.

The change in prices makes the U.S. fertilizer made from natural gas more competitive on the world market, Fitzgerald explained.

Natural gas is converted into anhydrous ammonia and then can be made into many fertilizer products including ammonium nitrate.

Finley has been home to fertilizer production by various companies for more than 50 years.

Tessenderlo Kerley's plant is considered small with just 25 employees, though it's large for the company, which has plants nationwide operated by 12 to 15 people.

Agrium is a larger facility, with about 60 employees. The business has three locations in Finley, with fertilizer actually being made at what the company calls its Kennewick plant off Bowles Road.

Its Finley plant on Game Farm Road only is used for storage and as a transfer station. The Hedges plant on Perkins Road was closed in 2005 when Agrium stopped making dry granular ammonium nitrate.

Manufacturing fertilizer

Ammonium nitrate has drawn national attention because investigators say it was what exploded at West Fertilizer Co., and it was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Agrium's plant in Finley makes several nitrogen-based fertilizers, including ammonium nitrate.

Fitzgerald said ammonium nitrate is not volatile enough to self-ignite. There has to be a fire or a blasting cap to act as a catalyst.

Plant manager Don Healy said their operation uses some combustible materials to make fertilizer, but makes no products that can self-combust.

Tessenderlo Kerley makes sulfur-based fertilizers out of sulfur from refineries.

Most of the sulfur-based fertilizers are benign, with a neutral pH, Inouye said. But some of the chemicals used are corrosive or flammable. Equipment used on those chemicals regularly is tested.

In some of the tanks, Inouye said, they use nitrogen to fill any empty space in the tank to keep oxygen out and to help prevent fires.

State Department of Agriculture inspectors check the plants for their plans for spills and fire response, as well as for quality control of the product.

Fertilizer manufacturers in Washington also must have a safety program to prevent workers from being exposed to hazards, said Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industries.

The companies must have a process safety management plan that covers an unexpected release of chemicals, she said. It's an internal plan that the department checks during inspections.

Agrium was inspected by the department in the past year, and Tessenderlo Kerley is being inspected for process safety management, Fischer said. The routine inspection started before the Texas incident.

Tessenderlo Kerley and Agrium have had good compliance, said Brent Perry, Washington State Department of Agriculture fertilizer compliance manager.

The companies have active internal programs to ensure they comply with state and federal rules, and will call if they have any questions, Perry said.

"They know what the rules are, and they want to comply with the rules," he said. "They view it like they can't afford to have a bad thing happen."

"The industry has been pretty proactive in the past to make sure that the products that they handle including ammonium nitrate are done so in a safe manner," Fitzgerald said.

Playing it safe

Agrium and Tessenderlo Kerley's recent records mostly show what officials call "housekeeping" issues that have been addressed, according to state and federal documents.

The two more serious incidents the Herald found in the past 10 years involved environmental citations, but no injuries.

In summer 2004, Agrium settled with the Environmental Protection Agency for about $24,000 after nitrogen oxide gases were released into the air in Finley after an equipment malfunction.

No people reported any medical issues, although officials said Agrium did not notify emergency responders fast enough as the yellow cloud drifted out of the plant.

The company also was fined $4,000 last June for accidentally discharging about 55,000 gallons of wastewater with a pH level greater than 10 into the Columbia River. The acceptable range is 6 to 9. Higher levels can damage aquatic life in the river, according to the state Department of Ecology.

Agrium has a permit to discharge water that is used to refrigerate ammonia at the Game Farm Road plant. The water does not come in direct contact with the ammonia.

Since 2007, Inouye said various Department of Ecology officials have been in about five times. Agriculture officials visit once every 12 to 18 months.

In recent years, Agrium has had multiple internal audits, as well as several audits from government regulators, all looking at safety, Healy said.

Being vigilant

At the Tessenderlo Kerley plant, four employees recently were in a 40-hour hazardous waste and operations training class that all employees undergo within their first year.

Inouye said that's only one of many training and certification requirements employees must meet. Training is scheduled about two to three times a quarter.

A lot of testing, inspections, preventative maintenance and training are among the things Tessenderlo Kerley does to try to prevent accidents, Inouye said, adding that many of their employees live within five miles of the plant.

Tessenderlo Kerley has been upgrading plant equipment in recent years to meet standards, he said.

Inouye said they try to engineer as much of the risk out as they can. Many of the processes are run by computer, but some does have to be done manually.

When employees might come in contact with chemicals, they are required to wear chemical resistant suits, along with gloves, boots, goggles, a hard-hat with a face shield. "You can't have too much safety," Inouye said.

Safety is the main topic of conversation at Agrium's morning meetings, Healy said.

He said Agrium treats all of its systems with the same rigor that federal law requires for certain systems. There are multiple backup safety systems that are engineered, or part of training and plant administration.

"We do a lot of preventative maintenance," he said.

Agrium regularly inspects all equipment and replaces anything that might have an issue, Healy said, noting their program includes an on-site inspection of tanks, piping and all of the plant's systems on a schedule.

"We have a very high level of safety standards that we take very seriously," Healy said.

In addition to environmental controls, both Finley plants have security, and are manned by employees 24 hours a day.

Tessenderlo Kerley has closed-circuit cameras at all entrances, as well as in various parts of the plant, Inouye said.

At Agrium, Healy said security at the site includes the fence, security access cards for entrances and an operator who checks IDs when the main gate is open.

"It's everyone's goal not to have any incidents," Inouye said.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service