The Associated Press June 23, 2005
Product becomes security liability
By John Miller
BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho agribusiness conglomerate has stopped making the kind of fertilizer used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, citing concerns that ammonium nitrate could fall into terrorist hands or become subject to national-security rules.
Over the summer, Boise-based J.R. Simplot plans to sell off its remaining inventory of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate, which adds nitrates to pasture land and citrus crops.
Legislation regulating ammonium nitrate is being considered in Congress. Besides its agricultural uses, ammonium nitrate can be used legitimately to treat titanium ore and to make mining explosives.
Timothy McVeigh combined 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate with auto-racing fuel to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The blast killed 168 people. McVeigh was executed in 2001.
"There's a huge amount of concern around the country with security officials," Simplot spokesman Rick Phillips said yesterday.
"We could just see that ammonium nitrate, down the road, could require some security things that we'd be unable to provide. The national-security climate told us we probably ought to start looking for some alternatives."
The decision to stop production was made last fall. Simplot had produced 40,000 tons annually at its plant in Brandon, Manitoba, selling the material mostly in Canada and the northern U.S.
About 2.2 million tons of agricultural ammonium nitrate is used in the United States annually, according to The Fertilizer Institute, an industry trade group in Washington, D.C.
The material's dark side has been known for decades.
In 1921, an explosion at a German chemical plant killed at least 430 people.
A 1947 explosion on a French fertilizer ship in Texas' Galveston Bay ignited refineries that burned for six days.
Ammonium nitrate also is used by the U.S. military in its 15,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs.
"The problem is, if somebody wanted to make big truck bombs, they wouldn't have to knock over the explosive shed at the local construction site, they'd just have to get it at a farm store," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based think tank.
Until now, a voluntary, industry-supported program has sought to detect sales of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer for criminal use.
Dealers are asked to track sales, snap photos of customers and report unusual interest in the product.
The effort has been criticized as ineffective by some in Congress, including Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who is sponsoring legislation that would require permits and licenses for sellers and buyers, boost storage safety, and force dealers to immediately report thefts and losses.
"Years after the Oklahoma City bombing, the major explosive ingredient Timothy McVeigh used is still unregulated," said Hinchey spokesman Jeff Lieberson.
The Fertilizer Institute hasn't weighed in on Hinchey's proposal.
The group is backing a Senate measure that would direct the Department of Homeland Security to draw up rules requiring registration of all facilities that handle ammonium-nitrate fertilizer, and record-keeping on all purchases.
Not all companies are ready to halt production of ammonium nitrate.
Canada's Agrium, which produces 300,000 tons of the chemical, is "reviewing the risk-reward propositions in all our businesses," said spokeswoman Christine Gillespie.
So far, the Calgary, Alberta-based company — which has a plant in Kennewick — has opted to continue production.
"We only sell to known customers and we confirm receipt of all shipments," Gillespie said. "We are proactively working to make sure our products are used only for intended purposes."
© Copyright 2005, The Associated Press