The pressure to cover more acres to make up for lost time means that anhydrous ammonia (NH3) safety should be top of mind when you head to the field. Accidents can come with a hefty price tag—and that's beyond any injuries.
In Illinois, for example, farmers will make 85% of their annual nitrogen applications for corn and wheat this spring, says Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association. Typically, 60% of their NH3 applications are done in the fall.
"With the late harvest, it just got too late and was too wet,” Payne explains.
Across the Corn Belt, farmers experienced similar challenges. In Iowa, producers usually apply 50% of their fertilizer after harvest. But they managed to apply only 36% this past fall, according to Mike Duffy, Iowa State University ag economist.
Most NH3 accidents are caused by transportation mishaps, human error or equipment failure.
According to William Rice, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 7, which includes Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and nine Tribal Nations, his region receives more reports of accidental
release of NH3 than for any other chemical.
Because federal government regulations peg NH3 as a hazardous substance, any spill of 18 gal. or more has to be reported to federal, state and local authorities within 15 minutes.
If farmers or retailers fail to report a spill, they can be fined up to $37,000 a day. If injuries occur, the penalty can increase.
NH3 at risk. Because of recent fines EPA has placed on ag retailers, some farmers worry that NH3 will eventually be unavailable for ag use.
Chemical security legislation is currently under consideration in both houses of Congress, explains Estelle Grasset, director of communications for the Fertilizer Institute.
The U.S. House of Representatives renewed a bill for the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) in November 2009. The bill includes a mandate for inherently safer technology (IST). IST is an engineering process that evaluates all systems within an operation to determine if there could be a safer technology used, whether it be a part, valve, motor or some other product.
In 2009, the Senate opted to extend CFATS for one year and is expected to draft a proposed chemical security bill early this year.
"The fertilizer industry supports efforts to increase U.S. security but opposes IST, which could potentially disrupt the fertilizer supply-and-demand chain by encouraging product substitution and may jeopardize the availability of lower-cost sources of plant nutrient products for agronomic purposes,” Grasset says.
In the meantime, farmers need to continue to handle NH3 with respect. To minimize physical risk, evaluate and update equipment each year; tow equipment at speeds less than 25 mph; wear appropriate clothing and protective goggles; and keep at least one 5-gal. container of clean water for first-aid purposes on each nurse tank or application rig. Most NH3 suppliers provide safety checklists that farmers can use to help prepare for NH3 applications.