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Carthage fertilizer plant owner disputes State Fire Marshal's claim

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
Aug. 27, 2013 at 11 p.m.


CARTHAGE - The owner of an East Texas fertilizer plant that stores ammonium nitrate said Tuesday that he never refused to give state inspectors access to his facility.

Bob Anderson, owner of Anderson Fertilizer and Milling Co. in Carthage, also said he's "not scared" of the potentially unstable chemical compound that's blamed for the <a href="http://www.news-journal.com/news/state/bodies-recovered-after-texas-blast-injured/article_7eaf8930-a8fe-11e2-93f6-001a4bcf887a.html" target="_blank">deadly explosion</a> earlier this year in West.

In <a href="http://www.news-journal.com/news/state/fire-marshal-inspections-refused-since-west-blast/article_e5a4ea25-48ff-5072-980e-9b32aec4f0c9.html" target="_blank">testimony Monday</a> to the state House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said five facilities have turned away inspectors since the West explosion.

Anderson said he declined to respond to survey requests from a caller who didn't represent any of the state agencies Anderson is mandated to comply with.

"I told him, 'Look, I'm a busy man,' " Anderson said.

Anderson said he didn't know until Tuesday morning that the survey was being conducted statewide on behalf of the State Fire Marshal's Office.

"I thought this was just a bunch of punks trying to come out here and tell me how to run my business since the explosion in West," he said.

Connealy said Monday that the request for permission to inspect Anderson's facility, along with more than 150 other similar facilities across the state, is simply a proactive measure against more incidents such as the one earlier this year in West that left 15 people dead and more than 200 injured and caused $135 billion in damages.

"The big part about this is education," he said of his office's desire to inspect facilities that keep more than 10,000 pounds - or 5 tons - of potentially unstable ammonium nitrate.

Anderson's facility is a quarter mile off CR 403, a mile and a half outside the Carthage city limits.

The facility is capable of storing 75 tons of ammonium nitrate, he said, and has about 25 tons in a storage container about 30 yards from the office where he sat Tuesday afternoon with his daughter and granddaughter.

"Do you think I'd do anything to hurt that little girl right there?" he asked.

Anderson said ammonium nitrate's potential as an explosive is cause for concern but added it doesn't just ignite when it comes into contact with a spark or flames.

"I have many, many, many times welded and put a cutting torch on this stuff, and nothing has ever happened. I'm not scared of it," he said as he pointed out that his family lives on the 1,700-acre property in houses less than 200 yards from the ammonium nitrate storage unit.

Connealy said the potential danger is why his office wants access to facilities such as Anderson Fertilizer and Milling.

"We are looking at best practices for preventing what happened in West and making sure these businesses are aware of those best practices," he said.

Those practices include storing ammonium nitrate in non-combustible containers like those made of concrete, providing ventilation systems to prevent pressure build up, having a sprinkler system and knowing the best way to fight fires when ammonium nitrate is involved, Connealy said.

"This is a basic fire inspection," he said. "No, this stuff doesn't readily detonate. It's not dynamite. But it can produce its own oxygen. You have a lot of things working against you."

But Anderson said he sees it more as an attack on fertilizer plant owners similar to what gun owners faced after the shootings this past year at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Connealy added that Anderson wasn't doing anything wrong when he denied access to his facility.

The State Fire Marshal's Office has no power to make unannounced inspections and cannot compel businesses to let inspectors in because there is no state fire code.

Anderson has up-to-date certifications and permits based on the state's required inspections - the most recent of which was conducted Monday - and he said he will welcome the fire marshal's office sometime next week.

"I didn't know they were going to report the survey results to the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas State Chemist. Now that this has come about, y'all come see me. I have nothing to hide," he said, describing the conversation he had with Connealy. "I just want to clear my name so I'm not out here looking like a Timothy McVeigh or whatever."

McVeigh and an accomplice, Terry Nichols, used two tons of ammonium nitrate in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Connealy also reported Anderson's initial refusal to the Department of Homeland Security, saying he didn't know why Anderson and owners of four other facilities wouldn't let his office inspect their facilities.

His permit from the Texas State Chemist under the Texas Department of Agriculture expires Aug. 31, but Anderson said he expects the new permit based on Monday's inspection to arrive in the next few days.

<h3>Oversight and regulation</h3>

Anderson said he is fearful incidents such as the West explosion will spur state and national officials to increase regulation of the fertilizer industry, which he contends already is highly regulated.

He believes costs to run an ammonium nitrate fertilizer facility, along with regulations and the perceived danger, is killing the industry he believes is vital to the future of farmers across the state.

"There's not many nitrate dealers left. I got a buddy who quit it because he was scared of it," he said.

And he said many have abandoned ammonium nitrate, which he says is better for farmers, and turned to urea sulfate fertilizers that he said require less regulation.

Anderson must maintain state permits to run the facility, store the chemical and transport it. His drivers also must have HAZ-MAT endorsed commercial driver's licenses.

Anderson has been in business for 28 years and says he doesn't know if ammonium nitrate will sustain itself for the next generation of his family.

The fact many of the facilities Connealy wants to inspect have been dealing with the potentially volatile chemical for so long also concerns him because he says longevity can breed complacency.

"When you work with a product all the time, you get comfortable with it. You may not respect it as much as you should," he said.

But the increased scrutiny based on the actions of a few, Anderson said, also threatens his business.

"It slanders me and the business. It makes us look bad. Right now is a terrible, depressed time for (nitrate) dealers anyway," he said. "If one customer quits, I don't need him to. I need three new customers to come in."

Connealy maintains his office is on the side of business owners and that inspections by his office will ultimately help people such as Anderson, who he says aren't always aware of all the regulations and best practices.

"There's no malice - they just don't know. They provide crucial support for farmers in the community. In fact, we're trying to keep them in business," he said, adding the best way to do that is to prevent the next West explosion.

"That place is gone. Those jobs are gone. Mr. Anderson is going to allow us to come in, and we'll work our way to gain his trust," Connealy said.

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