Friday, March 18, 2016

Anhydrous Ammonia and Land Use Planning

One of the issues that was raised in the CSB’s report on the West Fertilizer explosion was land use planning and hazardous chemical facility siting. The question was asked in that report: “Why would a community be located so close to a facility storing a potentially dangerous chemical?” That same question was recently asked in an Iowa farm community with a different chemical, anhydrous ammonia, but in a more proactive manner.

It seems that a Midwestern farm chemical supply company recently shut down a fertilizer distribution facility. One of the reasons was apparently concerns about the location of their anhydrous ammonia storage tanks inside of a town of 800 people. While they had reportedly never had ammonia release, the potential consequences of such a release could be quite severe.

In searching for a site for a replacement facility, the company obviously wanted to be close to their customers, corn farmers, so they wanted a location near a farming community. They selected a site on a state highway a little more than a mile outside of a town of about 4,000 people. Then they went to the local government board to request an appropriate zoning change for the property.

It was not a completely isolated location, and a few of their potential neighbors objected. It was even suggested that the facility be located at an existing farm supply facility right in town. If that plan had been accepted it would have placed the entire town within the facility’s danger zone as  calculated by the EPA’s RMP*Comp program. The planning board demurred and ended up approving the site outside of town.

While that is the end of the story in the local paper, it may not be the end of the problem. If we look at a map of the area we can see that businesses are already expanding out of town along the state highway. Those businesses are already within a mile of the proposed fertilizer facility. It does not take any great skill to see that if the town continues to expand, one of the areas where that expansion will head is straight towards the new fertilizer company.

If the local leaders don’t keep the potential hazard in mind as they continue to allow their town to expand, then in five or ten years an accident at that facility could have a devastating impact on another small, tight knit community; all for the want of effective land use planning that takes into account potential chemical hazards at local businesses.

1 comment:

Jake Brodsky said...

I have seen similar problems happen with other industrial and safety related endeavors. The place where I work used to have a sludge composting facility. It was a first class effort and the mulch from that operation was widely sought after by plant nurseries and lawn care companies all over the region. It was even used on the White House lawn.

But as the years went by, the place that had been wide open farm land became suburbia. Before long we had odor complaints. Eventually the facility was shut down.

In another case, a local airport had a strip of farm land following the runway alignment. Then the zoning board began allowing more and more development in that area. The airport complained about it not just about noise, but also safety. The response they got was stunning: "The need for more housing outweighs the noise complaints that would result" was the response. The airport then complained about safety, and the response was, "don't crash." Years later, some hapless idiot of a pilot stalled a jet on a landing approach and crashed in to a house.

The problem is that zoning politicians do not understand the risks. They violate those risks even despite knowing that there will be problems because they figure that they'll be on to bigger and better things long before anyone complains about a problem.

I really don't know what can be done about such arrogant stupidity.

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