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Anhydrous Ammonia faces Challenges in Rail Transport

Kenna Rathai 1

March 25, 2010

3 Min Read

There are environmental concerns, and there are security concerns. But there is no bigger concern with anhydrous ammonia right now than how to get it transported safely, cost-effectively and on time.

Anhydrous ammonia (NH3), the most common, richest and cost-effective N source used by farmers, is transported throughout its life via truck, barge and rail. But rail is king. In 2007, 3.9 million tons of it was shipped by rail, vs. 1.7 million tons by barge. And every railcar takes four trucks off the road.

However, it is labeled a toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) material, and railroads don't want to carry it. Although the federal government requires railroads to transport TIH materials under a common carrier obligation law, the railroads believe the liability involved is an unfair risk for them to assume.

The Association of American Railroads is busy raising rates, asking Congress to lift its carrier obligation and urging TIH manufacturers to develop safer alternatives.

As The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) testified to the Surface Transportation Board last spring, there is no viable alternative for NH3.

“A single rail car of ammonia produces 128,000 bu. of corn, which can feed 1,600 cattle or produce 345,600 gal. of ethanol,” says Bob Felgenhauer, a vice president with PotashCorp, and vice chairman of TFI's transportation council. “There simply is no substitute for anhydrous ammonia in maintaining our nation's food supply.”

In an attempt to find a solution to the railroad's liability concerns, TFI invested in a proposal to share the insurance burden should a catastrophic accident occur.

“If the railroads would agree to carry a certain amount of liability insurance, TFI would carry excess insurance that kicks in if an accident occurs and the base insurance is maxed out,” says Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs at TFI.

“Although we received fairly positive responses from the Class 1 railroads, the American Association of Railroads continues to lobby Congress,” she adds. “Unfortunately,the proposal has been shelved.”

PART OF THE problem may lie with another TIH material: chlorine. “Anhydrous ammonia gets associated with chlorine,” says Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association. “It's in the same hazard class as chlorine, yet there are many more examples of derailments and fatalities involving chlorine.”

Illinois is one of the larger ammonia states because most of its soils are heavy and organic, which helps the injected N cling to it. On average, 60% of the state's N gets applied in the form of NH3, while just 35% is liquid and 5% is dry urea.

“If you consider that ammonia is 82% N and weighs 5 lbs./gal., and that its liquid counterpart is 28%N and weighs 12 lbs./gal., you can transport and handle and store significantly less volume of product,” Payne says. “That's why ammonia has always been a very efficient way to put N down. Not to mention that it can also be significantly less expensive at times, depending on supply and demand.”

Payne believes that the industry has worked hard to have this product available at a reasonable cost.

“It's a battle that becomes more difficult every year with new regulations, pressure from the railroads, the EPA, departments of transportation and the increased liability costs,” she says. “We always hear talk about how ammonia is on its way out, but we continue to use as much as we did 30 years ago.”

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