An anhydrous ammonia leak in northern Illinois is already shaping up to be a teaching moment for both farmers and the fertilizer industry.
In late April, a Wisconsin farmer pulling side-by-side ammonia nurse tanks behind a tractor and toolbar in Lake County, Ill., had an incident that resulted in a major ammonia leak that injured 41 people and prompted an ongoing federal investigation.
According to Jean Payne, Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, farmers are exempt from training and hazmat licensing requirements when transporting anhydrous ammonia nurse tanks in Illinois. They can voluntarily attend joint IFCA-Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDoA) training every spring and fall that’s mandatory for retailers. They review safe transport practices — including the need to disconnect hoses and secure valves before transport, no matter the distance.
“What we see with these incidents is people ask, 'Why didn't the withdrawal valve shut?'” Payne says of the Lake County incident. “When a hose is involved, it might stretch or become damaged, causing a minor release. And of course, no release of ammonia is minor, but if part of the system becomes compromised, it may not cause enough pressure fluctuation for the excess flow valve on the nurse tank to activate.
“That’s why all equipment is required to be secured and the system shut down completely before getting on the highway.”
IFCA also hosts an online training platform that has only certified about 30 farmers in ammonia handling so far in 2019.
“A majority of these accidents happen when the farmer is in possession of the product, and it's not that he's doing anything intentionally wrong, it's just that there's a lot to the safe handling of anhydrous ammonia,” Payne says. “If you do one thing wrong, this product is very unforgiving.”
She says dicamba training for farmers is required in Illinois, and around 8,000 private applicators (farmers) were able to attend classes or take courses online during the off-season to prepare for it. She hopes something similar can be accomplished for anhydrous ammonia application to increase awareness of lessons learned from past accidents.
Over the last two years, there have been an increased number of anhydrous ammonia releases and hospitalizations due to inhalation and skin exposure, she says.
“Many farmers own their own toolbars,” Payne says. “We actually had a farmer fatality related to a toolbar recently, when he was working on it and didn't realize the system was still pressurized. Pressure was released, and he was killed. Not everybody hears about these things, but we do, and we incorporate the lessons into the IFCA and Illinois Department of Agriculture training program.”
A rare incident
The Lake County incident has been the first leak in the urban, northeastern Illinois area that Greg Koeppen, executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau, has ever heard of. He’s lived in the county for 20 years and says retailers, as well as farmers in the area, tend to prefer UAN and urea, neither of which are inhalation hazards like anhydrous.
“The farmers that I know who actually use anhydrous ammonia take the online class and go to IFCA seminars,” Koeppen says. “It only behooves our farmers to have that education to make sure they're using it properly. This is something they want to transport properly, for their safety and liability as well as others.”
Payne says the incident resulted in injuries to emergency responders, as the first 911 calls may have made it seem there was a fire or smoke coming from the farmer’s rig rather than a gas that required specialized emergency response gear.
Anytime a leak occurs, state and federal law require calling four numbers within 15 minutes to inform responders of what they’ll be walking into: the local emergency responders (911), the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the Local Emergency Planning Committee and The National Response Center.
“You're supposed to call, tell them what you have and where you have it, because when those phone calls don’t get made people arrive upon the incident and you can get more injuries, especially if it's not in an agricultural setting where people are more familiar with anhydrous ammonia,” Payne says.
Just days after the Lake County incident, another anhydrous leak occurred at an ag retail facility in Hanna City, Ill. One person was injured, and responders came equipped in hazmat gear knowing the source of the emergency. They were able to close the tank valve to stop the leak.
Overall, Payne says most ammonia is applied safely to fields.
“Every day that ammonia is applied safely, no one hears about it,” she says. “When nothing is released, there are no injuries, there's no liability, there's no lawsuits. That's what we want – to not have ammonia accidents occur or be in the news like it was last week, because we're safely transporting and applying it.”
To stay proactive against the threat of leaks, Payne says IFCA has always supported certification training for anyone who handles ammonia, and IFCA also worked with IDoA recently to update the state law to require that nurse tank valves be replaced every five years by the end of 2020. This will help prevent accidents caused by wear-and-tear. The law applies to both retailers and to farmers who own their own tanks.
6 steps to safe ammonia transport
Here are six safety tips to keep in mind while transporting ammonia:
1. Don’t pull more than two ammonia trailers in tandem behind a truck, or one ammonia trailer behind a tractor and toolbar.
2. Don’t travel faster than 25 mph when pulling ammonia tanks.
3. Between sunset and sunrise, make sure trailers are equipped with an amber rotating or flashing light.
4. Always perform a walk-around inspection of the towing vehicle, toolbar and ammonia tank prior to transit.
5. Before transporting ammonia tanks on any roadway, always shut off all valves on the ammonia tanks and disconnect any transfer hoses between the toolbar and ammonia tank.
6. Make sure each nurse tank has 5 gallons of fresh clean water, which is required for treating burns.