Ammonium Nitrate Likely Cause of Blast in West, Texas

Many questions remain regarding the West, Texas blast that injured and/or killed so many people.  What started the fire?  Why was the explosion so big?  How could this have been prevented?  Can fertilizers explode?  The answers to these questions are vitally important in the investigation regarding the cause of this massive explosion that devastated this small Texas town north of Waco.

Much of the investigation into this fire and explosion will likely include a look into ammonium nitrate and the role it may have played in this blast.  While typically inert, under the right conditions, ammonium nitrate can be extremely explosive.  It has been used in many terrorist attacks in recent history due to its availability and explosive characteristics.  Ammonium nitrate was used in the Oklahoma City bombing, the 2011 Delhi bombing, the 2013 Hyderabad blasts and the bombing in Oslo 2011.  Further, other fertilizer or ammonium nitrate plants have exploded killing many. What is ammonium nitrate, and if it’s so dangerous, why do we continue to manufacture and use it?

The simple answer is, we need it. Farmers have to produce more than ever before, in order to feed a growing planet and country. Natural plants need a number of chemicals to grow, with the most important being nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all of which are included with most packaged fertilizers. Nitrogen is the most important, however, as it essential for plants to manufacture new cells. Fertilizers cause plants to grow more rapidly and efficiently.

Ammonium nitrate is a commonly manufactured fertilizer. And when in solid form at room temperature, nitrogen makes up about one-third of this compound. This chemical is popular as a fertilizer because of its the soil. The nitrate part of ammonium nitrate can go deep into the root system under wet conditions.

Under normal conditions, ammonium nitrate decomposes into two gases, nitrous oxide and water vapor and it is not at all explosive. However, it can be detonated and is very explosive. When it is not being used as fertilizer, it is manufactured as an explosive. In fact, when full-scale production of the chemical began during World War II, it was used for munitions. It wasn’t until after the war that it became widely used as a commercial fertilizer due to its ability to infuse plants with nitrogen.

The West tragedy was not the first time ammonium nitrate has exploded in the state of Texas. Nearly 66 years ago in Texas City, a French ship, the SS Grandcamp, was docked at the Texas City port, when a fire broke out and detonated 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which resulted in a chain reaction. In all, 581 people were killed.

The potential danger associated with ammonium nitrate has been known for a very long time.  Further, the explosive characteristics of ammonium nitrate are also well known.  As the facts surrounding this explosion unfold, more questions will arise.  For example, how could this happen in this day and age when everyone is aware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate.

As the community of West, Texas begins to clean up and heal, the plant owners, operators, and management will need to explain to those injured, the families that have lost loved ones, and people forever changed why and how this happened.  In the meantime, if you can help the victims of this Ammonium Nitrate Blast, please do so.

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