Texas blast draws attention to overuse of fertilizers

NOTE: A reader alerted me to the disconnect between the nitrogen fertilizer at issue in the West plant explosion, and the problematic phosphorous runoff I discuss later in the post. To clarify: Most fertilizer used on farm fields contains a blend of nitrogen and phosphorous, and both substances are known to run off  the land and lead to harmful algae growth in waterways. 

The investigation continues into last week's fire and explosion at West Fertilizer Company that killed 15 people and injured 200 in Texas.  The blast destroyed the fertilizer facility and nearby houses, and devastated the small town of West, Texas.

Photo: Fire at the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas on April 17, 2013. The Bay Area's News Station, CC some rights reserved

The company sold ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, both commonly used as fertilizers.  Investigators have said they're not sure how much was on site at the time because plant records were destroyed in the explosion.

Nitrogen-based fertilizers make today's industrial-scale farming possible.  But the West explosion has people questioning the broadening use of them.  Tom Laskaway, head of the Food and Environment Reporting Network, wrote this in Grist.org:

"But while the explosion last week was spectacular and tragic, the lives lost there and the pain the community of West, Texas, is suffering offer a window into a much larger battle concerning the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers on American farmland."

U.S. farmers apply over 11 million tons of nitrogen fertilizers to farm fields every year.  Most of that is ammonium nitrate.

While New York isn't a leader in planting fertilizer-hungry commodity crops, the value of corn, soybeans, and wheat has "increased greatly" in NY over the past five years, according to the NY Corn and Soybean Growers Association.  So we have reason to pay attention.

Problems of possible explosions aside, more fertilizer is often applied to on farm fields than plants can absorb.  It washes out of the soil and into nearby streams and other waterways.  Laskaway writes, "or evaporates into the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas."

He describes the main environmental and health risks:

"They include threats to climate, to human health through nitrate pollution in drinking water, to fish and other wildlife through fertilizer run-off causing low-oxygen “dead zones” throughout the U.S and the world, and to soil health and thus long-term agricultural productivity."

Through my career, I've heard most about the water quality issues.

It's been well-documented that fertilizer and other substances runoff farms into Mississippi River, end up in the Gulf of Mexico, and cause dead zones.

In 2010, the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorous Task Force wanted to find out what was causing massive algae blooms, which were using all the oxygen, and choking off other living things in the Lake.  It was also dangerous for people and animals to touch it.

The Task Force found that agriculture runoff was the key contributor of phosphorous  – and the majority of that – 66-percent – was fertilizer.

So while the people in West, Texas are now living with the sudden impact of the West Fertlizer plant explosion, the rest of us are looking at a slower, less direct impact of these products.  And while its use is ubiquitous on American farms, and won't be eliminated, there is good reason to use it more carefully.

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  1. Julie,
    I agree that the overuse of fertilizer is an issue we should look at. But I'm a little confused by your post. As far as I know, ammonuim mitrate and anhydrous ammonia do not contains phosphorus. Yes, phosphorus runoff is a problem, but it is a separate problem from the question of how much nitrogen should be added to field crops.

  2. As deadly as explosions and algae blooms are, far and away the most dangerous by product of the massive use of ammonium based fertilizers is the exponential explosion of the human population enabled by the far greater quantities of food which this artificial nitrogenation of the soil produces. It took from roughly 1800 to 1930 to double the human population from 1 billion to 2 billion. In 1930 the technology to produce commercial quantities of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers was achieved and the race was on; 1960, 3 billion, 1974, 4 billion, 1987, 5 billion 1999, 6 billion, 2011, 7 billion ….