By Kris Lancaster
“Go get your grandmother!” my uncle shouted as a deadly white cloud of anhydrous ammonia drifted menacingly above my hometown of Memphis, Mo., in 1970, where I worked as a teenager at my family’s agribusiness.
I vividly remember my uncle’s face 45 years later, and the weight on my shoulders to evacuate Grandmother Lancaster. I raced to her house and convinced her to go with me to my uncle’s home. After she was safe, I ran to other homes and knocked on the doors to alert my neighbors of the danger. After a few hours, hundreds of nearby residents were safely evacuated.
The emergency was triggered when a fitting on an anhydrous ammonia tanker disconnected from the storage tank, resulting in the release of nearly 20 tons of the airborne chemical. The truck driver and a neighbor helping at the scene were injured.
Many people don’t associate risk with agriculture, but some of the chemicals used can be dangerous. The 1970 incident had a huge impression on me. I realized that exposure to anhydrous ammonia can happen suddenly and unexpectedly, and can cause injuries or even death. This chemical is widely used as a source of nitrogen fertilizer for corn, milo and wheat.
That accidental release happened before EPA was created. Since then, most of the agribusinesses in Region 7 have worked well with EPA and handled these volatile chemicals very responsibly.
EPA regulates anhydrous ammonia through the Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Plan (RMP) Rule. Our goal is to prevent releases that could harm the public and environment. Agricultural retail facilities that handle, process, or store more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia were first required to be in compliance with the RMP Rule in 1999.
At the Lancaster agribusiness, my job in the 1960s and 1970s included loading and unloading fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate. In Scotland County, Mo., this fertilizer was used by farmers primarily as a top dressing for wheat and applied on pastureland.
On April 17, 2013, a fire at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas, resulted in the detonation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, killing 15 people. Since then, EPA and its partner agencies have stepped up outreach efforts with retailers, responders, and agribusiness associations across the country to help prevent future tragedies.
Today, it’s gratifying to know that EPA is continually reaching out to the ag community in the Heartland to protect workers, responders, and the public from dangerous chemical incidents. I’m proud to work with our agribusinesses to help keep our communities safe.
Visit these EPA Region 7 links for more information:
Chemical Risk Programs page
Preventing Accidental Anhydrous Ammonia Releases video
About the Author: Kris Lancaster specializes in agricultural relations for EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. After graduating from Central Missouri State University, he worked for the chairman of the Missouri House Ag Committee and later, for the ranking member of the U.S. House Ag Committee. His family owns a row-crop farm in Scotland County, Mo. Kris has three decades of media relations experience.