Texas explosion puts Tampa Bay companies using anhydrous ammonia on heightened alert

Mike Clark measures a gate before he installs it to help stop a leak on an ammonia pipeline near the Alafia River at US Highway 301.
Mike Clark measures a gate before he installs it to help stop a leak on an ammonia pipeline near the Alafia River at US Highway 301.
Published April 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.

Does that make the Tampa Bay region, a key cog in the national production of fertilizer, susceptible to an ammonia explosion similar to the one that rocked a central Texas farming town, killing up to 15 people and wounding more than 160?

It is a chilling scenario that underscores why major fertilizer companies here such as CF Industries and Mosaic Co. insist of safety in transporting and handling ammonia has been paramount.

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

"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."

Herschel Morris, vice president of phosphate operations for CF Industries, which produces 2 million tons of fertilizer a year, said his company isn't concerned about a similar situation happening at its Hillsborough County plant.

"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 also operates a 38,000-ton ammonia storage tank and a deep-water 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 notes with pride that the terminal is the only one in Tampa capable of unloading the largest, fully-loaded ammonia vessels.

Morris said the CF plant hasn't had an evacuation or major emergency in the 38 years he's worked there. Likewise, Monfried said there have been no accidents at her company's Florida facilities since Mosaic was formed in 2004.

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, but no ammonia leaked. One worker was injured jumping off a moving railcar.

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

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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 by itself is highly explosive. So the storage and journey of ammonia to fertilizer plants merits extra caution.

Port of Tampa spokesman Andy Fobes said the port largely defers to individual tenants when it comes to securing their anyhdrous ammonia.

At Mosaic, management holds regular drills and works with fire safety officials. At CF, the company regularly practices safety drills in the event of a fire or other emergency on site.

One of Mosaic's three manufacturing plants is located in Riverview at South 50th Street and Riverview Drive. Some residents expressed concern while others were not worried about residing and working so close to the plant.

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

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