Depot explosion ignites fertilizer safety concerns, not prices

Apr 26, 2013
by DTN

Fertilizer continued on its nearly six-month-old path of extremely steady prices, according to retailers tracked by DTN for the third week of April 2013. But the explosion at a Texas fertilizer outlet is renewing safety concerns about the storage of certain fertilizer products.

Six of the eight major fertilizers were lower compared to last month, but these moves to the low side were fairly tiny, DTN’s weekly survey of more than 330 retailer locations found. DAP had average price of $616 per ton, MAP $659/ton, potash $587/ton, urea $573/ton, 10-34-0 $613/ton and anhydrous $858/ton.

The remaining two fertilizer prices were higher compared to the third week of March, but again the move was extremely small. UAN28 had an average price of $402/ton and UAN32 $451/ton.

On a price per pound of nitrogen basis, the average urea price was at $0.62/ lb.N, anhydrous $0.52/ lb.N, UAN28 $0.72/lb.N and UAN32 $0.70/lb.N.

The explosion at the West, TX, fertilizer facility last week killed at least 14 people, injured more than 200 others and caused massive property loss. Among the many questions raised in the aftermath of this disaster is what fertilizers are flammable and how firefighters should handle different fertilizer fires.

Galen Barrett, a fire service training coordinator at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, IA, said a fire which involves ammonium nitrate is the most difficult fertilizer fire to battle. Barrett also serves as chief for the Crescent (Iowa) volunteer fire department and teaches classes across southwestern Iowa training rural firefighters how to fight different types of fires.

According to fertilizer industry officials interviewed by DTN, ammonium nitrate likely caused the massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Company. Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the Department of Homeland Security when they hold 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate. Filings with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.

A fire with ammonium nitrate is “horrible” to fight, Barrett told DTN. Ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer, which means applying water will only produce more oxygen, which feeds the fire.

Firefighters’ options in battling an ammonium nitrate fire are limited. The best route may be containing the fire and letting it burn itself out, he said.

“I suppose you could try to smother it with either sand or soil, but it is a very tough fire to fight,” Barrett told DTN.

A fire featuring anhydrous is much easier to fight, according to Barrett.

“Anhydrous has an explosive limit of 16 percent to 25 percent of the total air space,” said Barrett. “Under 16 percent it is too thin to burn, and over 25 percent it is too thick, but in that range it can burn.”

In an anhydrous fire, you are fighting vapor not the product, he said. The simplest thing to do is keep the tank cool with water to avoid the tank exploding and close the valve which is producing the anhydrous vapor.

Urea is not flammable from an open flame, and the dry fertilizer will not burn, he added.

Barrett recommends firefighters, fertilizer retailers and producers with on-farm storage work together to establish a “preplan.” With advance knowledge of what’s stored on site, firefighters will know exactly what type of fire they are facing and know how to battle it safely, he said.

Meanwhile, DTN’s survey found only one of the eight major fertilizers it tracks is showing a price increase compared to one year earlier. Anhydrous is now 12 percent higher compared to last year.

Four fertilizerĀ“s prices are single-digit lower compared to April 2012. DAP is 3 percent lower, both MAP and UAN28 are down 3 percent and UAN32 is 7 percent lower compared to last year.

Three fertilizers are now down double digits from a year ago. Potash slid 11 percent while both urea and 10-34-0 are 22 percent less expensive.

DTN collects roughly 1,590 retail fertilizer bids from 330 retailer locations weekly. Not all fertilizer prices change each week. Prices are subject to change at any time.

DTN Pro Grains subscribers can find current retail fertilizer price in the DTN Fertilizer Index on the Fertilizer page under Farm Business.

Retail fertilizer charts dating back to November 2008 are available in the DTN fertilizer segment. The charts included cost of N/lb., DAP, MAP, potash, urea, 10-34-0, anhydrous, UAN28 and UAN32. — Russ Quinn, DTN