The West Fertilizer Accident: Road Map of AN and NH3 Regulations

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On April 17, a massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant in the town of West, Texas, killed at least 15 people and injured more than 160 people.  The impact of the blast was equivalent to a 2.1 earthquake and felt for miles, but for the ag retail industry the repercussions will resonate for years.

Although there is no indication that the blast was anything other than an industrial accident, authorities are treating the scene as if it was a criminal act. Many media reports try to claim that a lack of regulation of anhydrous ammonia (NH3) and ammonia nitrate (AN) is the problem, but until the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) establishes the root cause, it’s too dangerous to speculate.  [At the time of this publication little information was available to determine the root cause of the explosion. West Fertilizer is not a member of ARA.

Anhydrous ammonia and ammonia nitrate are heavily regulated by various federal and state agencies across multiple areas of expertise: terrorism (Department of Homeland Security), workplace safety (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), air quality (Environmental Protection Agency), highway safety (Department of Transportation). And, this doesn’t take into account voluntary consensus standards for products adopted by retailers created by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

ARA works closely with federal and state agencies to further educate and provide services to support its members in their quest to maintain regulatory compliance, a profitable business and help feed the world. The following sections of this article provide a road map of ammonia nitrate (AN) and anhydrous ammonia (NH3) regulations that ag retailers need to comply with.


OSHA ensures that the hazards of all chemicals produced or imported are classified, and that information concerning the classified hazards is transmitted to employers and employees along with first responders. OSHA regulates the storage of AN and NH3 and requires emergency response plans, emergency response training and compliance with all OSHA hazardous communication standards.

Ag retailers are required to provide material safety data sheets (MSDSs or SDSs) and emergency response plans to first responders so they know how to handle the hazard. As many retailers know, SDSs are an important component of product stewardship and occupational safety and health. It provides workers and emergency personnel with procedures for handling or working with that substance in a safe manner (NH3 and AN are included).  Information such as physical data (melting point, boiling point, flash point, etc.), toxicity, health effects, first aid, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment and spill-handling procedures are condensed into a one to two page fact sheet.


DHS regulates Chemical Security Anti-Terrorism Statutes (CFATS) that present high levels of security risk and also regulates the sale and transfer of AN by an AN facility to prevent the misappropriation or use of AN in an act of terrorism.

DHS regulates AN and NH3 fertilizers as a chemical of interest under CFATS for different threats. Under CFATS, any facility storing more than 400 lbs. of AN (or 2,000 lbs. of agricultural grade AN which normally has less than 0.2 percent combustible organics) is considered a theft threat and, therefore, must submit a “top screen survey application” to DHS. NH3 is a toxic chemical release threat –and as such has a screening threshold quantity (STQ) of 10,000 lbs. 

Daren Coppock on the Diane Rehm ShowDaren Coppock, ARA president and CEO, participated in a panel discussion about the West Fertilizer Co. explosion on the April 23 Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio. A top screen is used to determine whether the facility presents a high level of security risk. If so, the facility is required to submit a security vulnerability assessment (SVA) to DHS. The department reviews the SVA and advises the facility as to its status as a covered facility. DHS has established four tiers of security risk–Tier 1 is for the highest risk facilities and Tier 4 is for the lowest risk facilities. A facility that is tiered in one of the four tiers must submit a site security plan. If DHS determines a facility is not a threat, no tier will be assigned and DHS will advise the facility that no further action is required. To our knowledge, not one ag retailer has been inspected, but lower risk facilities such as ag retailers are scheduled for inspection starting this year.

DHS regulates the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate by each facility that handles this product. This is done to prevent the misappropriation or use of ammonium nitrate in an act of terrorism. However, the rule has been held up at DHS in the rule making process since 2008 with an expectation of a final rule released by the end of 2013.


DOT regulates the transportation of hazardous materials such as AN which is administered by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA). The DOT regulations govern the transportation of hazardous materials by highway, rail, vessel and air.  The regulations address hazardous materials classification, packaging, hazard communication, emergency response information and training.

AN is classified as a 5.1 oxidizer. As a 5.1 oxidizer, AN in quantities of 1,000 lbs. or more must be placarded and meet certain container specifications. Companies that transport AN must train employees, register with DOT and comply with all other applicable PHMSA requirements for hazardous materials. DOT also considers ammonium nitrate to pose a security risk; therefore, all placarded loads must have a security plan. Motor carrier drivers must have a commercial driver’s license with a hazardous materials endorsement.


EPA regulates air emissions from stationary and mobile sources. Among other things, this law authorizes EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NNH3QS) to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

Under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act, ag retailers with more than 10,000 lbs of NH3 must develop a risk management plan that documents and describes a facility's hazard assessment and response plan. That hazard assessment mandates that facilities document the worst case scenario for a chemical accident and the consequences of that scenario and implement accident prevention and emergency response programs.


The NFPA has developed a code for storage of AN. By itself, AN is not combustible. However, AN is an oxidizer, and it can accelerate the burning of fuels when it is involved in a fire. Code 490 applies to the storage of AN, which includes storage in containers, storage in bulk, contaminants and fire protection. NFPA 490 recommends that should a fire break out where AN is stored, emergency responders should apply large volumes of water as quickly as possible.

According to the ANSI Standard for Storage andHandling of NH3, the conditions favorable for ignition are seldomencountered during normal operations due to the high ignition temperature required.


Just recently, ARA forged a partnership with the FBI and has been working with them on security education and outreach efforts.  FBI representatives have made presentations at ARA meetings and exhibited at the 2012 ARA Conference.

Several years ago, ARA joined The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) in putting together the “Know Your Customer” Campaign.  This campaign was initiated to prevent the misuse of nitrate-based fertilizer and provides retailers with suggested guidelines to follow regarding the sale of these products.

Additionally, tools like the Asmark Security Vulnerability Assessment (SVA) help ag retailers identify and evaluate potential security threats, risks and vulnerabilities. ARA has been working with Asmark, TFI and CropLife America on this program since 2003, and it was set up well before the DHS CFATS program was established.

ARA also participates in the Fertilizer Institute Security Task Force that works with the Joint IED Defeat Organization leading Department of Defense efforts to defeat the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) through counter-IED (C-IED) efforts.

ARA is also a member of the Chemical Sector Coordinating Council (CSCC), one of 18 critical infrastructure committees established to facilitate effective coordination between the private sector and federal, state, local, territorial and tribal governments.


ARA members take pride in offering products and services to their farmer customers that help provide food, feed, fuel and fiber to the world.  While it’s too dangerous to speculate about the root cause of the West Fertilizer accident, ag retailers continue to comply with NH3 and AN regulations in striving towards the most efficient, safe and best practices to accomplish their goals. ARA continues to carefully monitor safety and security issues and continues to work with government agencies and allied organizations to apply any lessons learned so a tragic incident, like the facility explosion in Texas, will never happen again.

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Chris Clasen    
Colorado-USA  |  May, 14, 2013 at 10:06 AM

Thanks for sharing this article. There are additional authorities which exist for many communities that are often under-utilized and poorly resourced, especially in rural areas. The local fire authority may serve in a critical role to govern the safe use of hazardous materials through authority manifested under the International Fire Code and through their role pursuant to the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) regulated by US Environmental Protection Agency. Building infrastructure and relationships to support local fire authorities will help both first responders and government to exercise a broad range of authority.

Bill Kuenstler    
Arlington, TX  |  May, 15, 2013 at 03:07 PM

Chris, you make a good point. Early news reports on this explosion said that the first responders knew the kinds and amounts of fertilizer in the building that was burning. If that is true, then they had not been trained in how dangerous the situation was. If they were truly aware of the situation, they would have immediately began to evacuate people from the nearby apartment complex, which was destroyed in the explosion, killing two people and injuring many others. By the way, I live in Arlington, TX, about 70 miles north of West, and we heard the explosion.

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