America’s Fertilizer Keeps Blowing Up. It Doesn’t Have To

Mother Jones

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It didn’t take long in the aftermath of April’s explosion in West, Texas, for the problems with the fertilizer industry to come into focus. Inspections are virtually non-existent; regulatory agencies don’t talk to each other; and there’s no such thing as a buffer zone when it comes to constructing plants and storage facilities in populated areas.

Lost in the fallout, though, is a damning fact: fertilizer doesn’t have to be explosive. Pure ammonium nitrate like the kind that caused the West disaster is already banned in the United Kingdom, Germany, Colombia, the Philippines, and China, due to its explosive risk; Australia’s largest fertilizer manufacturer discontinued the use of the compound after it was used in the 2002 Bali hotel bombing. And the Department of Defense has pressured fertilizer manufacturers overseas to neutralize their own products, warning that anything less constitutes a threat to American personnel. But in the United States, with the backing of the chemical industry, explosive ammonium nitrate has held onto a small but powerful share of the market as the fertilizer-of-choice for citrus growers.

It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. In the late 1960s, a chemist from Kansas, Charles Saffer, and an explosives engineer, Samuel Porter, began working in their spare-time to develop an antidote to the kind of destructive devices Porter had witnessed while stationed in Somalia with the US military. Porter and Saffer secured a patent for non-combustible fertilizer that involves diluting ammonium nitrate with diammonium phosphate. Because diammonium phosphate is itself used as fertilizer, the new compound was—in theory—still an effective agricultural compound. The duo enlisted a partner, Robert Colbert, and found a lawyer: a young Louisiana attorney named Billy Tauzin.

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America’s Fertilizer Keeps Blowing Up. It Doesn’t Have To

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