Problems found at Minn. anhydrous ammonia plants

Farm Forum

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) – Minnesota doesn’t have ammonium nitrate fertilizer plants like the one that exploded in Texas last month, but the state does have anhydrous ammonia storage facilities that can be potentially dangerous.

Inspection records from eight plants in its three-county area of central Minnesota showed almost all the eight had some problems in their last inspections, some of which happened as long as five years ago, according to a story published on May 20 by the St. Cloud Times.

In some cases, inspectors ordered owners to stop using storage tanks until the problems could be corrected. In three cases, violations resulted in fines.

While ammonium nitrate is not commonly used on Minnesota farms, anhydrous ammonia is. It’s a colorless gas that’s stored under pressure in liquid form. It’s pumped into the soil as a source of nitrogen. The state has 287 anhydrous ammonia storage facilities, and they’re regulated and inspected by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Anhydrous ammonia is not explosive like ammonium nitrate, but exposure can result in severe burns to skin, eyes and lungs, and prolonged exposure can cause suffocation. Handlers need to wear protective equipment, said Joe Spitzmueller, manager with the pesticide and fertilizer division of the state agriculture department.

“It creates an immediately dangerous environment,” Spitzmueller said. “If a release occurs, you don’t want to be anywhere near it.”

But regulators and facility owners agree that Minnesota’s tight regulations and numerous safeguards protect public safety.

“It’s a heavily regulated part of our industry,” said Jeff Wheeler, compliance manager of Centra Sota Cooperative, which owns storage facilities in Clear Lake, Santiago and St. Martin. “Yes, it’s a hazardous material, but we do take every precaution to protect both ourselves and the public and everything around us so it’s a product that can continue to be used.”

Anhydrous ammonia is popular because it’s typically more economical than other nitrogen fertilizers.

“It’s a dangerous product, no doubt about it, but if it’s handled properly, there’s basically nothing that will make crops better and a cheaper method than anhydrous ammonia, especially corn,” said Jim Anderson, co-owner of Anderson Farms of Belgrade.

Department inspectors look at whether the site is secure and fenced, whether the valves are closed and locked, whether the tanks are protected from traffic and whether they’re rusty. Inspectors look at everything from the mechanical parts of the tank to hoses to whether identifying signs are cracked or faded. Owners are directed to fix any immediate hazards. If the problem requires time to correct, the owner is given a deadline.

The agriculture department’s goal is to visit each site every three years. A few years ago, the site inspections were occurring less frequently, Spitzmueller said.

“What we found is if we got to sites less frequently, we saw less compliance,” he said.

The 2011 Legislature provided a one-time appropriation to increase the frequency of inspections. The department hired two additional inspectors and hopes that by June, every site in the state will have been inspected within the last three years, Spitzmueller said.

The department is also looking into creating a third-party inspection program, an idea welcomed by many in the industry. Owners would hire independent auditors to inspect their facilities and tell them how they’re operating.