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Could fertilizer plants blow up here?

Though a big ammonia player, Central Florida seems to have less risk.
Published Apr. 19, 2013

Every day, thousands of tons of anhydrous ammonia flow by pipeline and rail through the Port of Tampa to fertilizer plants around Central Florida.

It's the same stuff that contributed to a massive explosion that rocked a central Texas farm town Wednesday.

Does that make Tampa Bay, a key cog in the national production of fertilizer, susceptible to a similar ammonia explosion?

Gary Albarelli, director of information programs at the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute, said there's a key distinction between what happens at Central Florida's fertilizer plants and at the facility that exploded in Texas.

For the most part, plants in Hillsborough and Polk counties produce fertilizer as their final product, Albarelli said, while the plant in Texas produced anhydrous ammonia itself. The ammonia is combined with phosphoric acid to create fertilizer.

Anhydrous ammonia can be highly explosive under certain conditions. So the storage and journey of ammonia to fertilizer plants merits extra caution.

Wednesday night's explosion, operators say, only served to put them on heightened alert.

The idea of a similar explosion in Tampa Bay is a chilling scenario that major fertilizer companies here such as CF Industries and Mosaic Co. say underscores why they put such heavy emphasis on safety in transporting and handling ammonia.

"This is a very sobering reminder for all of us about why health and safety is at the core of Mosaic's workplace culture," Mosaic spokeswoman Martha Monfried said. "I'm proud to say our safety record is among the best in our industry."

Monfried said no accidents have happened at her company's Florida facilities since Mosaic was formed in 2004.

But there have been a few scares in the bay area before.

Hundreds of Riverview residents were forced to evacuate their homes in 2008 after a 16-year-old boy drilled into an anhydrous ammonia pipe, lured by an urban legend that it contained money.

The only money that ensued was $398,000 in federal fines against Tampa Pipeline Corp., the company that owned the pipeline.

Three years ago, some railcars carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed at the Port of Tampa, and one worker was injured jumping off a moving railcar. But no ammonia leaked.

Herschel Morris, vice president of phosphate operations for CF Industries, said his company, which produces 2 million tons of fertilizer a year, isn't concerned about a lethal explosion like the one in Texas happening at CF's Hillsborough County plant.

Morris said the CF plant hasn't had an evacuation or major emergency in the 38 years he's worked there.

"We do handle some hazardous chemicals here, but nothing like that explosive nature that we saw there," he said. "We would never expect to have issues similar to what we've seen near Waco."

Beyond its fertilizer operation, CF Industries operates a 38,000-ton ammonia storage tank and a deepwater dock at the Port of Tampa.

Each year, the terminal handles more than 400,000 tons of ammonia to support CF's fertilizer manufacturing. The company says the terminal is the only one in Tampa capable of unloading the largest, fully loaded ammonia vessels.

The Port of Tampa largely defers to individual companies when it comes to securing their anhydrous ammonia, port spokesman Andy Fobes said.

CF Industries regularly practices safety drills in the event of a fire or other emergency on site.

Mosaic holds regular drills and works with fire safety officials.

One of Mosaic's three manufacturing plants is located at U.S. 41 and Riverview Drive in Riverview. Some residents expressed concern in the wake of the Texas explosion while others were not worried about living and working so close to the plant.

Bruce Maxwell, 74, has lived in a triplewide mobile home along Amos Drive about a mile from the Mosaic plant for about 15 years. He never thought about any dangers until Wednesday night when he saw images of the Texas explosion on the news.

"It looked like an atomic bomb," he said.

Still, he didn't want to dwell on the possibilities.

"If you're worried about everything in life, where would you move?" he said. Some places have tornadoes, others have hurricanes, he said.

Tony Samuels, pastor of the nearby Lighthouse Revival Center, shrugged off any worries. "We've never felt like we're endangered at all."

Spencer Sommer, 53, who lives near Gibsonton Drive, agreed. He worked at a fertilizer plant in Illinois about 22 years ago.

"It was safe if you know what you're doing," he said. "You just have to be smart about it."

Fertilizer plants near Bartow High School in Polk County also don't bother principal Ronald Pritchard. In fact, he has never heard of any incident at the Polk County plants. Many of his students' parents work in nearby mines.

"It's a part of our everyday life," Pritchard said. "It's like the sun coming up."

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Devastation in Texas

West Fertilizer Co. didn't think a blast leveling five blocks and injuring 160 was possible either. Until it happened. Page 16