Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ammonium Nitrate (AN): Safe Storage, Handling, & Management


In general, AN is manufactured for use as a fertilizer and to produce explosives and blasting agents.2 There are several other uses in the chemical industry, such as the production of nitrous oxide. These other uses represent a small fraction of amount of AN used in the US.

Although pure AN is stable at ambient temperature and pressure under many conditions, the chemical itself does not burn. AN is a strong oxidizer3 and it supports and accelerates the combustion of organic (and some inorganic) material, increasing the fire hazard and complicating the fire fighting challenges. AN may explode when exposed to strong shock or when subjected to high temperatures in confinement.

Millions of tons of AN are produced annually in the US. Incidents involving AN are rare, but as is shown in the accidents below, they can have severe consequences. Most recently, on April 17, 2013, a fire at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas, resulted in a detonation of AN fertilizer stored at the facility, killing 15 people, including some of the firefighters responding to the fire. That incident remains under investigation,4 but much has been learned from other AN explosions.

• On October 2, 2003, a fire and explosion occurred in a double story farm warehouse in St. Romain en Jarez, France, involving 3 to 5 tons of AN stored in bags. This incident killed 26 people, 18 of whom were firefighters. In this incident, improper storage methods are thought to have played a role.

• On September 21, 2001, a massive explosion occurred in a warehouse at the Azote de France fertilizer factory in Toulouse, France, involving 200-300 tons of AN, which was stored in bulk in a hangar. The explosion resulted in the death of 30 people, 2500 injuries, the destruction of the factory, and an additional 10,000 buildings being heavily damaged. The exact cause of this accident remains unknown. Storage of incompatible material with AN is believed to have been a factor.

We have learned several key lessons as a result of these accidents and additions studies of AN, including:
The conditions of storage and the materials co-located with AN while in storage are crucial to the safety and stability of the AN.

Explosions of stored AN are responsible for some of the worst chemical disasters on record. Several of these incidents, including two in Germany in 1921, occurred during attempts to break up large piles of solidified or caked AN and ammonium sulfate mixtures using explosives. In both cases, the initial blast intended to break up solid AN initiated an unintended general detonation of the AN or ammonium sulfate mixture.

AN will self-confine under some conditions. Adding heat, such as a booster charge intended to break up clumps, can initiate a general detonation of the AN.

Other large explosions have been triggered by fires involving AN in confined spaces, including the 1947 explosion in Texas City, Texas, of two cargo ships. In that case, the first ship is thought to have exploded due to a fire in the hold involving AN fertilizer that had been manufactured with a wax coating and stored in paper bags. The wax would have been one potential source of fuel for mixing with the AN, thus creating an explosive situation. The second ship exploded some time later, likely due to a fire caused by the first explosion. These two explosions resulted in deaths of nearly 600, including all but one member of the Texas City Fire Department.

As a result of such accidents and subsequent studies of the properties of AN, caked AN is no longer broken up with explosive materials, and organic material such as wax coatings are no longer used for AN fertilizer.
Our intent in issuing this advisory is to identify actions that should be taken as a result of the lessons learned from the more recent accidents involving AN. Similar to the corrective steps taken following the 1921 and 1947 incidents, this advisory emphasizes the safe steps that should become common practice in the industry and emergency response community in order to prevent the catastrophic loss of life and property damage.

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