Are Iowa Fertilizer Plants at Risk?

Apr 19, 2013

Smoke rises as water is sprayed after an explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas.
Credit Mike Stone / Reuters

The deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas is prompting questions about regulatory oversight there.  In Iowa, officials say fertilizer is only produced at a handful of sites across the state, but many others store it.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman says the agency regulates 700 retail facilities in Iowa that store more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, an ingredient that can be particularly volatile.

Iowa's Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement Administrator, Steve Slater, says annual inspections aren’t required at most sites that handle fertilizer.

"If we have a complaint or a serious injury, they would certainly fall under our inspection list, but they’re not on a general scheduled inspection list as being a high-hazard industry unless there’s an issue like I just mentioned," Slater says.

Slater says depending on the circumstances, the rules may be tighter for fertilizer processing plants.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources say there are at least two existing plants in Iowa, in Fort Dodge and Sergeant Bluff. Another facility has just begun construction in southeast Iowa’s Lee County. The DNR regulates environmental issues like air quality but not workplace safety.

The state Department of Agriculture’s website lists more than 3,000 of companies licensed to store, sell or distribute fertilizer in Iowa. Some are based in other states.

Slater says the state has a mostly good track record with fertilizer plants. But he says the incident in Texas is likely to prompt reviews of regulations nationwide.

"It's like the occurrence that just happened in Boston – you just can’t predict this stuff," Slater says. "When it does, it makes big news and big headlines and provides good opportunities for everybody involved with this (to evaluate) whether we’re doing enough and how we can do things better, I guess."

In 1994, an explosion of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at a plant near Sioux City killed four people and injured 15 more.