The Chemical Safety Board’s investigation will likely take several months, but in the wake of this tragedy, we are acting now to take a number of concrete steps to strengthen our commitment to safety.  Those voluntary steps include reviewing what we are doing today and determining what can be enhanced; providing tools that explain and support compliance with federal and state regulations; and developing a Code of Practice that will include audits from independent experts.

Throughout the nation, fertilizer producers and retailers who handle ammonium nitrate are redoubling their safety efforts, reviewing the best ways to operate their facilities and making changes to make a difference.

For example, one facility decided to remove trash, grease guns and front-end loaders (which run on gasoline or diesel) from their building to minimize the presence of anything that could serve as an ignition source.

Fertilizer facilities are also meeting with local emergency responders in their communities to ensure they are aware of material stored on site and response procedures. Working hand in hand with local responders is an ongoing effort. A number of plants and fire departments already do joint training exercises.

There are numerous federal and state regulations that apply to fertilizers.  In May, we made an important tool available free of charge to agricultural retailers to help them check compliance with those regulations. That tool, developed by the non-profit Asmark Institute, also provides tips on how various companies are meeting those standards.  We are encouraging not just retailers, but also producers, wholesales, importers and state fertilizer associations to spread the word about the availability of this and other tools that help them comply with regulations.

In the first month we made the tool available, more than 1,000 facilities completed assessments.

We are also working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to update our Web-based guidance materials developed in 2007 to help agricultural retailers update their Risk Management Plans. Under the regulations, many facilities need to update and submit their plans to EPA this year.

In early June, we launched a major new initiative to develop a Code of Practice. The Code, which should be completed later this year, will establish uniform safety guidelines for handling, storage and distribution of fertilizer products based on existing regulations and the “best practices” companies are using to operate safely. We had begun discussing the initiative earlier this year, which we are modeling after an existing program in Canada. Our initial focus was solely on another key fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia. But in light of the West incident, we have now expanded the scope to include ammonium nitrate.

We will put real teeth into this initiative by creating third-party inspection and auditing systems to check on whether participating facilities are meeting the Code. Participants in the program will have access to the audit reports of other participants. 

These and other efforts will continue as we await the results of the West investigation.  It is important to remember that fertilizer is essential to life and its use is responsible for 50 percent of the world’s food production.  We are proud of our role in helping to feed the world.  We are also an accountable and responsible industry that is committed to the safety of the communities where ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia are manufactured, stored and sold to farmers. By working together, we will do everything we can to prevent tragedies like West from happening again. That is a goal we all share.

Ford West is president of The Fertilizer Institute.