A recent incident in suburban Chicago involving an anhydrous ammonia leak that injured several people, including first responders, underscores the dangers the nitrogen fertilizer can present in both transportation and application.
Despite its dangers, anhydrous ammonia is the least-expensive form of nitrogen fertilizer and remains the form of choice for many farmers. Following all safety procedures and using personal protective equipment when handling anhydrous can prevent issues like the one in Chicago.
VITAL FORM OF NITROGEN
To many farmers, anhydrous is a reliable, efficient and cost-effective source of nitrogen if handled safely, according to John Rebholz, director of safety and education for the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association (IFCA). In Illinois, farmers use approximately 670,000 tons annually of anhydrous, and the number of incidents are fairly low.
Rebholz said if ag was solely reliant on the other forms of nitrogen (liquid and dry), the fertilizer would not only be more expensive but supply issues would arise with one less form available, he said. Farmers always need to follow safety reminders when handling or transporting anhydrous, whether it be a normal or condensed growing season like this spring has been, he said.
Growers in the state are encouraged to go through training, but currently, the state of Illinois does not require training for farmers. However, ag retail employees who handle and transport ammonia are required to go through safety training.
IFCA offers a free online training program specifically for farmers at their website.
“IFCA’s position is that anyone who handles or transports anhydrous ammonia should go through anhydrous ammonia training,” Rebholz told DTN. “We would definitely support a training program for our farmer customers, as most of the incidents occur when the farmers are in possession of the ammonia.”
Rebholz said if a farmer is in possession of anhydrous ammonia and a reportable release of 18 gallons or 100 pounds occurs, it is the grower’s responsibility to immediately notify the proper emergency personnel. Although they may not want to make the calls, it is their responsibility per federal and state regulations to contact these agencies if the release occurs while they are in possession of the anhydrous, he said.
It’s necessary to provide emergency responders with specific information about the ammonia release, which allows them to prepare and act accordingly, he said. A written follow-up report is also required and must be sent to the Illinois Emergence Management Agency (IEMA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Ammonia release contact information can be found here.
PROPER HANDLING IMPORTANT
Handling and transporting anhydrous ammonia in a professional manner is important to assuring nitrogen is properly applied in a safe manner, said Mark Hanna, retired Iowa State University Extension ag engineer. The fact that so much anhydrous has been — and will be — applied in such a small window leads him to believe incidents like the one in suburban Chicago happen because people get in a hurry and disregard safety rules.
“I wouldn’t say it is everyone, but it is only human nature to cut corners when it comes to anhydrous safety during busy times,” Hanna said.
Hanna estimated about half of the state of Iowa’s nitrogen is applied in the anhydrous ammonia form. He said that, during his lengthy Extension career, he was asked whether anhydrous is too dangerous to work with.
His said his opinion is that farmers have made their nitrogen form decision, and for many, especially in the Western Corn Belt, the form they want to use is anhydrous. The cost and density of the fertilizer is extremely appealing to many, he said.
While anhydrous may pose some safety hazards, those that use the product can remain safe if they pay attention to safety details, he said.
When working with anhydrous application equipment, it is important to know wind direction and stay upwind when operating valves, he said. When working with this equipment, it is also important to make sure all equipment is well maintained and in proper working order, including hoses, valves and hitches with safety chains.
With much of the preplant anhydrous already on in Iowa, Hanna said a rainy-day project might be to inspect the anhydrous applicator before the heart of sidedressing season. A quick run-through of the equipment might revel some different components that may need to be addressed.
Another important safety measure when it comes to anhydrous is to make sure personal protective equipment is present and in good shape. This would include unvented goggles, long sleeves, anhydrous gloves and a properly fitted respirator with ammonia-approved cartridges.
Also, make sure the 5-gallon emergency water supply attached to the nurse tank has water and that it is clean water. Often, dust and dirt get into the small water tank and make the water dirty, he said.
Iowa State Extension had an article titled, “Equipment Considerations for Anhydrous Ammonia Application,” written by Hanna in the Integrated Crop Management (ICM) News segment on March 19. Click here to read the article.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture also has anhydrous ammonia safety training online. You can find this information by clicking here.
Russ Quinn can be reached at email@example.com
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