DOD pushes tougher fertilizer standards in Pakistan to curb IEDs

A month after a fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people in Texas, the federal government is pushing for stronger industry standards — in Pakistan.

The Department of Defense office charged with countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been working with the Pakistani government and private companies to make sure that chemicals from commercial fertilizer cannot be used to make bombs.

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Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is a common ingredient in homemade bombs used by insurgents.

To prevent fertilizer made in Pakistan from falling into the wrong hands and slipping across the border into Afghanistan, the American military has spent months negotiating with the government and private corporations to impose regulations and tighter standards.

"We've been working with the Pakistani government for a while," said David Small, a spokesman with the military's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

Last week, the American and Pakistani militaries signed a joint framework on reducing IEDs, which Small said includes measures to help control ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The effort has been in the works for about 20 months.

"We've also been in touch with the industry over there and working with them on different efforts," Small added. "We asked the industry to come up with a number of different things. We thought that if they guide their product that it would be more difficult for that product to make its way out of the country to insurgents."

Small cited the example of calcium ammonium nitrate, a chemical Pakistani fertilizer companies use, which he said is “actually illegal" in Afghanistan.

Pakistani fertilizer producers have begun tracking shipments of their product, stopped distributing it along the border with Afghanistan and have been color coding it to help border guards, many of whom are illiterate, recognize bags than should be restricted.

"Since these things have been implemented by the fertilizer industry over there, by the Pakistani government, the ammonium nitrate being used over there has come down significantly," Small said. "And any effort that we or the Pakistani government does to make it more difficult for such material to get in the hands of bad folks who are going to use it for IED-making, that's a good thing."

After the April 17 blast in West, Texas, that killed 15 and injured 200 people, legislators demanded that the federal government crack down on American companies that evade current safety regulations. No new rules have hit the books, however.

“The chemical reporting laws on the books today are toothless and do little to help us protect communities from chemical explosions," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in a statement at the time introducing legislation to increase penalties. That bill has been languishing in committee ever since.

The Texas plant reportedly held more than 1,000 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that should have triggered additional oversight from the Department of Homeland Security, but failed to report that fact to the federal government. It had also sought exemptions from current federal workplace rules, and had not been inspected for compliance since 1985, the Center for Public Integrity reported.