Tri-City fertilizer plants vow safety after Texas explosion

Tri-City HeraldApril 19, 2013 

Finley — As rescuers searched Thursday for survivors of a deadly Texas explosion, a supervisor at a Mid-Columbia fertilizer manufacturer emphasized that his company’s top priority is safety.

Dave Dey, production superintendent of Agrium’s Kennewick Fertilizer Operation, said the company will “monitor what happened in Texas very closely and see if there’s any learning there. If there are lessons from that, we’ll take them and apply them and make sure nothing like that happens (here).”

He said Agrium “absolutely takes the surrounding community, personnel and process safety as the top priority. That’s number one. We will never sacrifice anything as far as that goes.”

And he said “our hearts go out” to the people affected by Wednesday’s explosion in Texas.

The explosion at the fertilizer plant — described as a retail and storage facility, not a manufacturing site — happened in the small town of West. The death toll was reported by The Associated Press as up to 15 earlier Thursday, with more than 160 injured.

Officials later backed off that number and refused to elaborate.

Agrium Inc., an agricultural products and services supplier with headquarters in Alberta, Canada, has three sites in the Tri-City area within a few miles of each other along the Columbia River.

The company’s local fertilizer manufacturing happens at the end of Bowles Road in the Finley area. Dey said the plant makes nitrogen-based liquid fertilizer, and the products used are noncombustible.

He didn’t have an estimate of how much fertilizer is produced, saying it varies day to day. Sixty to 65 people work at the site.

Gilbert and Bibiann Henjum have lived near Agrium for more than 30 years. The Texas explosion was on their minds Thursday, but the Finley couple said they aren’t worried.

Gilbert Henjum said he’s more concerned about the nearby railroad tracks, where tank cars pass through, and a defunct chemical plant down the road where kids play.

“Anywhere you live can be dangerous,” he told the Herald. “Heck, you could live on Clearwater (Avenue) and it could be dangerous."

Nine years ago, the company accidentally released a large plume of nitrogen oxide gas into the air over Finley, prompting numerous 911 calls.

No medical problems were reported and Agrium agreed to pay more than $24,000 for not immediately notifying the correct agencies.

In Washington, there are an estimated 300-plus bulk fertilizer distributor license holders, including several in the Tri-City area, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

The license is required for any site that distributes commercial fertilizer in bulk, nonpackaged form, the state Business Licensing Service website says.

Like Agrium, Tessenderlo Kerley Inc. manufactures liquid fertilizer in the Finley area. Plant manager Robert Inouye said his facility has an emergency response plan in place, follows all local, state and federal regulations and “provides a great amount of training to our employees.” The plant has about 27 full-time workers.

Jeremy Beck, Benton County’s emergency manager, said local officials will examine the Texas incident to ensure “nothing like that happens in this county.”

He noted a response plan is in place in case of a communitywide event, and a local emergency planning committee that includes representatives from area businesses with hazardous materials on site meets quarterly.

“We have a prepared community,” he said. “We have some of the best trained responders around.”

First-responders in the Yakima Valley area were tested in 2005 when a fire at a Wilbur-Ellis Co. farm chemical warehouse in Grandview prompted the evacuation of hundreds of nearby residents, sent about 50 people to area hospitals complaining of respiratory problems and closed part of Interstate 82 for about 18 hours.

Tests later showed the fire didn’t contaminate the surrounding area with pesticides or other dangerous chemicals.

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