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Ammonium nitrate is all over U.S., given uneven oversight; it exploded in Beirut — and in West Texas


Ammonium nitrate, blamed for the Beirut explosion, is all over the U.S., and unevenly regulated, due to agriculture’s influence.

The explosion in Beirut last week that killed more than 130 people was fueled by 2,750 metric tons of an unsafely stored fertilizer. That fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, is common in the U.S., and it’s unevenly regulated. That could put more people at risk, Joe Wertz reports for the Center for Public Integrity.

A memorial for the 12 first responders killed in the West Fertilizaer explosion. (Photo by Callie Richmond for the Center for Public Integrity) Click image to go to complete story.

“A 2020 Center for Public Integrity investigation found uneven oversight of the chemical in the United States, even after efforts to strengthen federal rules,” Wertz reports. Ammonium nitrate “has been a key component of catastrophic industrial accidents and terrorism, including the 2013 blast at an agricultural-products retailer that killed 15 and injured 260 people in Texas, and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168.”

After the Texas disaster, then-President Obama ordered officials to reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals, but agriculture lobbyists sought to block broad amendments to the Environmental Protection Agency’s risk-management program, Wertz reports.

“When the EPA finally released its Chemical Disaster Rule, it didn’t add ammonium nitrate to the list of ‘highly hazardous’ chemicals. Many safety advocates said the regulations were too soft on chemical manufacturers and users, but conceded the changes were at least a slight improvement from previous rules,” Wertz reports.

“When President Donald Trump took office, his administration weakened the oversight with a ‘reconsideration rule’ that removed third-party audits and safer-technologies assessments — a move the EPA said would save industry $88 million.” In contrast, the damage from the Texas explosion alone was $200 million.

The Trump administration has tried to eliminate the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which probes such industrial accidents; though he’s not been able to convince Congress to defund the CSHIB,”he’s kept it from releasing its reports by not filling the board’s four vacant seats, Public Integrity reported,” Wertz reports.

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This story appeared originally in The Rural Blog, a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.


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