Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:
The Decatur (Ala.) Daily on explosives:
One of the most explosive substances known is also one of the most commonly used in agriculture. Ammonium nitrate is readily available to almost anyone, yet it has been used against people, and has been the source of tragic accidents.
A study by the Government Accountability Office, obtained by The Associated Press, found that federal agencies charged with monitoring use and storage of the material are woefully uninformed of who actually has the stuff. The study also found many storage locations are within blast zones that could destroy schools and nursing homes.
The most recent tragedy involving ammonium nitrate was the explosion at a factory in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013. The fertilizer storage and distribution company caught fire and exploded, killing 15 people, injuring 160, and damaging or destroying 150 buildings, including homes and a school.
On April 19, 1995, homegrown terrorists blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City using ammonium nitrate as the base material of the bomb. In that tragedy, 168 people, including children, were killed, and 680 were injured.
About half the known storage and distribution facilities in the federal database are in the South, one of which is Alabama. Most are located in areas where agriculture is a prominent part of the economy.
President Barack Obama pledged to stiffen enforcement of regulatory requirements for ammonium nitrate after the Texas explosion, but the GAO report makes clear that so many gaps exist in reporting and data collection that a massive undertaking awaits regulatory agencies.
The report also found that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has cited only one company for violation of its ammonium nitrate storage requirements in its more than 40-year history, and that citation was issued only after an employee of the company complained.
Outdated federal policies, poor information sharing with states and numerous exemptions for industry mean there is little federal oversight for ammonium nitrate.
One of the problems is that ammonium nitrate is not considered a hazardous material by the Environmental Protection Agency, so OSHA and other federal and state agencies seldom perform on-site inspections.
Given the volatile nature of ammonium nitrate and its potential to be used as a terror weapon, its use and storage must be re-evaluated for public safety.