New Report Details Threats to Climate, and Clean Water and Air, on 10th Anniversary of Deadly West, Texas, Fertilizer Explosion
Washington, D.C. – Today marks the anniversary of one of the worst industrial disasters in American History. On April 17, 2013, a fertilizer company storage facility in the small town of West, Texas, holding up to 120,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, caught fire and exploded, flattening more than 120 buildings, injuring 260 people, and killing 15.
Ten years later, the U.S. is experiencing a boom in the nitrogen fertilizer industry itself, including the production of ammonium nitrate, in part because of the war in Ukraine (which led to sanctions of Russian natural gas, a central ingredient in nitrogen fertilizer) and hydraulic fracturing in the U.S., which has made American natural gas cheaper.
Companies are planning 12 ammonia nitrogen fertilizer projects (nine new plants and three expansions) that together could boost the capacity of the U.S. nitrogen fertilizer industry by 58 percent, from just under 20 million metric tons annually to about 31 million metric tons, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), “The Fertilizer Boom: America’s Rapidly Growing Nitrogen Fertilizer Industry and its Impact on the Environment and Public Safety.”
This expansion poses risks to the environment and public safety because the nitrogen fertilizer industry contributes vast amounts of water and air pollution and greenhouse gases, according to data available from EPA. The industry has avoided some key safety reforms advocated in the wake of the Texas explosion, has a poor record for environmental compliance, and EPA has not updated water pollution control technology standards for the industry since 1986.
“If the nitrogen fertilizer industry is going to be expanding at this rapid rate, EPA needs to strengthen its pollution control and safety standards for the industry,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “It makes no sense that this booming industry has technology standards that date to the Reagan era.”
There is no question that nitrogen fertilizer provides a tremendous benefit to society by boosting the production of food to feed billions of people around the world, including in developing nations. But the over-application of chemical fertilizers also carries a cost for the environment, and that harm increases when the manufacture of the chemicals is poorly regulated, according to EIP’s report.
Three of the new ammonia nitrogen fertilizer plants proposed for construction are in Texas (one in Beaumont and two in Texas City, south of Houston, the site of an April 16, 1947, ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion that killed 581 people.) The other new nitrogen fertilizer plants are proposed in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, California, Nebraska, and North Dakota, according to permit applications and other public records. Two expansions of existing fertilizer plants are planned in Donaldsonville and Geismar, Louisiana; and one in Kenai, Alaska.
These 12 projects do not include the growing production of ammonia as a fuel and as a chemical ingredient in non-fertilizer products, which could add an additional 14 new ammonia plants. When taken together, the proposed new production of ammonia for both fertilizer and non-fertilizer uses could nearly triple the U.S. ammonia industry’s production capacity (from 20 million metric tons to 57 million metric tons per year), based on company announcements made to date, and potentially multiply the industry’s environmental impact.
Some of the main findings of EIP’s report are the following:
- After the West, Texas, explosion, an initial wave of investigations and proposals to boost EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety regulations surrounding ammonium nitrate were only partially successful. They fell short in a few key areas, with mandatory disaster planning and information sharing not required for many of the 1,300 facilities across the U.S. that store ammonium nitrate.
- In the decade since the Texas disaster, ammonium nitrate has been involved in at least 106 spills or accidental releases across the U.S., seven of which involved fires, five of which required evacuations, nine of which resulted in 13 injuries, and two of which resulted in deaths. Over the last century, 641 people in the U.S. and 1,237 globally have been killed in major explosions of nitrogen fertilizer.
- The 30 plants producing ammonia nitrogen fertilizer in the U.S. today discharged 7.7 million pounds of nitrogen pollution — including 3.9 million pounds of toxic ammonia–into U.S. waterways in 2021. That’s as much nitrogen pollution as from 62 sewage treatment plants. These nitrogen fertilizer plants also released 46.8 million tons of greenhouse gases that year – as much as nine million passenger vehicles driving for a year.
- These 30 plants also released 16,146 tons of nitrogen oxide air pollution in 2021, as well as 12,491 tons of ammonia, 5,227 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 3,981 tons of volatile organic compounds (all of which contribute to smog); 1,929 tons particulate matter (which can trigger asthma and heart attacks); and 12 tons of benzene (a known carcinogen).
- The proposed 12 new and expanded fertilizer factories in the U.S. could significantly increase this water, air, and greenhouse gas pollution. For example, the proposed nine new and three expanded fertilizer plants could discharge an additional 3.1 million pounds of ammonia pollution into waterways every year. They could also boost greenhouse gas emissions by up to 19 million tons a year.
- Two thirds of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer plants (20 of 30) violated their water pollution control limits from March 2018 to March 2023, but only 15 percent (3 of 20) were penalized for the violations, according to EPA Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) data.
Beyond these environmental and safety risks from fertilizer facilities themselves, end-users of nitrogen fertilizers – from farmers to golf course managers homeowners – often overapply these chemical fertilizers to their crops, lawns, and fields, according to EIP’s report. Farm runoff of fertilizer is one of the largest sources of water pollution in the U.S., feeding “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and toxic algal blooms every summer on Lake Erie in Ohio and Lake Okeechobee in Florida, among other waterways.
The report contains lists and maps of all the existing and proposed nitrogen fertilizer plants in the U.S., as well as most recent available air pollution totals from each existing plant. Below is a list of the Top 10 plants that discharged the most total nitrogen water pollution in 2021.
TOP 10 FERTILIZER PLANT DISCHARGERS OF TOTAL NITROGEN WATER POLLUTION IN 2021
|Company||City, State||2021 Pollution Total (Total Nitrogen, lbs)||Average Daily Load (lb/day)|
|CF Industries Holdings, Inc.||Donaldsonville, LA||3,145,664||8,642|
|Mosaic Company||Donaldsonville, LA||814,799||2,230|
|CF Industries Holdings, Inc.||Port Neal, IA||609,883||1,675|
|Yara Freeport LLC (via BASF Freeport)||Freeport, TX||320,563||887|
|Dyno Nobel Louisiana Ammonia, LLC (via Cornerstone Chemical)||Waggaman, LA||276,015||756|
|Koch Fertilizer, LLC||Enid, OK||263,652||721|
|CF Industries Holdings, Inc.||Yazoo City, MS||225,741||617|
|LSB Industries, Inc.||El Dorado, AR||205,538||564|
|Nutrien Ltd.||Geismar, LA||173,942||477|
|East Dubuque Nitrogen Fertilizers, LLC||East Dubuque, IL||145,237||399|
Source: Discharge monitoring reports available through EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online and permit records.
Nitrogen fuels the growth of algal blooms that suck oxygen out of the water, leaving “dead zones” that suffocate fish and other forms of life
EIP’s report makes the following policy recommendations to better regulate the growing nitrogen fertilizer industry and protect the environment and public safety:
- The EPA should update and strengthen its water pollution control standards – called effluent limitation guidelines – for nitrogen fertilizer manufacturers to reflect current technologies. On April 11, a coalition of 13 environmental groups, led by the Environmental Integrity Project, filed a federal lawsuit against EPA asking for the agency to update its standards for fertilizer plants and six other industries.
- After tightening up these guidelines, state and federal regulators should strictly enforce permit limits for water and air pollution from the industry and impose penalties for violations. Consistent penalties will provide the owners of plants with an economic incentive to upgrade their facilities to prevent spills, leaks, and other releases.
- The EPA should add ammonium nitrate to the list of more than 140 hazardous chemicals that require facility owners to plan for disasters and share information about chemical hazards with local emergency planners.
- OSHA should ensure that retailers of nitrogen fertilizers are regulated under its Process Safety Management standards and inspect these facilities regularly to make sure explosive fertilizers are stored correctly and protected from fires that could cause explosions.
- EPA should remove an exemption for fertilizer retailers from its Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, thereby making it easier for first responders and the public to understand whether explosive nitrogen fertilizers are located near communities.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 21-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas, dedicated to the enforcement of environmental laws and strengthening of policies to protect public health and the environment.
Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org