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Donora Plant Houses Huge Volumes of Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer

Martha Rial

After 30 tons of fertilizer detonated in West, Texas last April, investigators are looking into the cause of the explosion that killed fifteen people, including twelve firefighters and emergency responders.  PublicSource reporter Bill Heltzel has been investigating chemical plant Dyno Nobel in Donora, PA, and gauging the town’s understanding of hazardous substance safety.  United Steel Workers safety officer Kim Nibarger represents union workers at the plant.

Ammonia, a chemical used in many household products such as fertilizers and cold packs, is an ingredient in ammonium nitrate fertilizers.  In the Donora plant, ammonium nitrate pellets are produced and used in coal mining. Nationwide, about 600,000 people live within a quarter mile of a blast zone of ammonium nitrate products. According to Heltzel, despite a recommendation from the Chemical Safety Board, there are many holes in safety regulations.

“The risk management plan must be filed for ammonia, but is not required for ammonium nitrate fertilizers and explosives,” explained Heltzel.

After eleven years, neither the EPA nor the Occupational Health and Safety Administration have chosen to act on this issue.

“The people that face the greatest risk, whether it’s the workers at the plant or neighbors, they should know what’s in their backyard,” said Heltzel, adding that there are no known statistics for how much ammonia is stored in Pennsylvania.

Nibarger explains that workers are trained in basic ammonia emergency response, but the majority of the general public is unaware of the kinds of products made at Dyno Nobel.  

The city of Donora has a history of chronic exposure to potentially deadly chemicals. In 1948 deadly smog sat over the town and trapped gases that killed 20 people over five days.  

After the explosions in West, Texas, more companies are making the public and workers aware of the risks that accompany the handling ammonium nitrate.

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