Commentary: The aftermath of the West Fertilizer tragedy

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In the days, weeks and months ahead, many issues surrounding the explosion that took place at the West Fertilizer Company’s facility last week, will be discussed. Agriculture, fertilizer, safety precautions, town development, government regulations and security will all be up for review as a result of the massive tragedy in West, Texas.

The mainstream media is already asking how and why large amounts of fertilizer are allowed to be stored in locations near homes and businesses. Zoning laws and planning experts will be questioned at West, Texas, and likely throughout much of the country where fertilizer is manufactured and stored.

What makes the devastation in West so tragic is the proximity the homes, school and nursing home were to the facility. The company was founded in 1958 and the facility was built shortly thereafter. The homes and buildings were established after the plant had been built.

Communities around the country will begin to question the wisdom of having any homes or businesses near any fertilizer storage or many types of manufacturing facilities. Although the public cannot ignore the potential safety dangers possible being near these facilities, it is not a time to panic or flee rural areas near ag retailer operations because of the possibility another explosion may occur. Almost all facilities operate safely day in and day out. Let’s not forget that this event was an exception, not a rule to fertilizer handling and storage, and there are newly raised questions about the legalities of the West operation

However, in the months ahead, the discussions will zero in on facilities and their obligations to protect the public. Many facilities will need to speak to the media and reassure their communities that precautions are being taken to keep everyone safe, especially at the height of fertilizer season

The explosion at the West facility should also be a reminder to all ag retailers, fertilizer companies and anyone who handles fertilizer how precautions are necessary. Now is a great time to review safety protocols, update risk management plans and prepare to talk with the media.

When tragedy happens, all of the best laid plans and binders full of risk management plans tend to get lost during an emergency. I learned this at the recent Crisis Management & Media Training Program that was offered by the Agricultural Retailers Association, Feb. 27-28 in Kansas City, Mo. This program was the first time ARA had developed a program to help retailers train to handle emergency situations and learn how to speak to the media.

What I learned at this program was that only through practice and preparation for these types of events in advance will employees be prepared to speak with the media. People in our industry do not seek fame or the spotlight, and often, their first instinct is to keep their thoughts to themselves. Speaking to the media is not a skill that will come naturally to most in our industry. This program offered the chance to practice real-world scenarios to experience how to respond to the media in the event of a tragedy. Companies that handle fertilizers and agri-chemicals would be wise to consider attending any future programs ARA provides on this topic in light of the events that happened last week.

So, as the investigation goes on into what exactly happened at the West Fertilizer Company facility, keep in mind that your communities will be looking to your retail and fertilizer outlets to allay their fears that your facility could have a similar tragedy. The ag retail and fertilizer industries have an opportunity to educate the public at this time and provide reassurance that their employees are trained to handle these chemicals.

New laws and regulations will probably be discussed, and participation of those in our industry will be crucial in guiding discussions so that overbearing rules will not be applied unnecessarily.

In the mean time, our hearts and prayers are with the community of West, Texas, which was devastated by this terrible event.

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John Hester    
Lone Tree, IA  |  April, 25, 2013 at 09:50 AM

Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing I quit selling or storing ammonium nitrate. There are good alternatives to ammonium mnitrate that farmers can use. CVlearly, removing this product from fertilizer warehouses prevents catastrophies like West Texas

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