A fatal ammonia tanker crash in Illinois shouldn't lead to regulatory overreach
Around 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29, a wreck on Interstate 70 between Effingham and Teutopolis, Illinois caused authorities to divert traffic from the interstate onto the older Route 40 that goes directly through the two towns. Farming is the main business in that region, and among the vehicles diverted onto Route 40 that evening was a tanker truck carrying 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, which is a popular form of nitrogen fertiliser.
At 9:25 p.m., the truck overturned in a multiple-vehicle collision, which is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Because of the large toxic plume of ammonia that resulted, first responders evacuated about 500 people from northeast Teutopolis overnight, allowing them to return late Saturday. Once rescuers were able to access the scene, it was found that five people had died, including two children under 12. It was not clear at this writing whether the victims died of ammonia inhalation or from effects of the crash itself, but five survivors were taken to a local hospital as well.
Every day, hundreds of ammonia tankers travel between distribution points on their way to supplying farmers with what many consider to be an essential and economical fertiliser. Ammonia gas, which consists of one atom of nitrogen and three of hydrogen, is a colourless acrid-smelling substance that boils at 28 below zero Fahrenheit. (The household bottles of ammonia that can be found in grocery stores are actually weak solutions of the gas in water.) Before Fritz Haber developed a high-pressure process to synthesise ammonia directly from hydrogen and nitrogen in the air around 1910, ammonia was obtained mainly by distilling animal urine, a messy and expensive job at best.
After World War II-era chemical plants found themselves with an overcapacity of ammonia plants once the war ended, the price dropped to the point that direct injection of the gas into soil at a depth of six inches or more became a fast and economical means of applying nitrogen fertiliser. Since then, an entire anhydrous-ammonia infrastructure has grown up to deliver the substance to millions of acres of farmland, usually without incident.
But every now and then something goes wrong, as it did last week in Teutopolis. Despite the best efforts of mechanical designers to make tanker trucks safe, collisions can sever connecting pipes and cause leaks, which is apparently what happened last Friday. Ammonia as a gas is lighter than air, but if enough is released near the ground, it will form a suffocating cloud that cannot be seen. This is why the authorities took the prudent precaution of evacuating part of Teutopolis once the nature of the accident became clear.
In addition to being toxic at concentrations above a few parts per million, ammonia is explosive when present at air concentrations higher than about 15 percent. So, if you escape being suffocated by it, you could instead be blown to bits.
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It's surprising that there aren't more accidents involving anhydrous ammonia, but when it is used in properly designed equipment by trained operators who know how dangerous it is, it can be transported safely all the way from the factory to the soil, where it is quickly absorbed by complex chemicals and biological materials and becomes available to fuel plant growth.
At the same time, it is a highly unnatural process characterised by many features that we associate with modern industrial culture: large-scale concentrations of products, complex distribution networks, and use in largely monoculture farms (all corn or all wheat, for example). All these things go against the grain (so to speak) of the small-farming idea that each farm should be its own ecosystem, recycling manure to the soil, which grows the food for the animals, and so on.
For whatever reason, we as a culture seem to be happy with (or at least blissfully unaware of) the forces and compromises involved in the kind of industrial-scale agriculture that we have. The cheapest food, if externalities such as ammonia accidents are ignored, will always be the mass-produced type made with the minimum amount of labour using the largest economies of scale. But externalities are not nothing, and the problems that large-scale agriculture causes, ranging from pollution to alleged animal cruelty to obesity, don't often have dollar prices attached to them.
If we were losing hundreds of people a year in anhydrous ammonia accidents, the issue might come into public consciousness to the extent that some might at least question the propriety of fertilising plants this way. But as it is, such mishaps are so unusual as to be newsworthy in themselves.
While it is tragic any time anybody is killed, we may find that the people who lost their lives in this accident were killed by the consequences of the collision itself and not the ammonia that was released afterwards. Either way, it seems that we as a nation are willing to accept some hazards — namely, having tons of anhydrous ammonia rolling around on highways and railroads — in exchange for the advantages that the process confers on farming.
I recently read a book with a title that my wife remarked was one of the longest for a non-fiction book she's seen: The End is Near and It's Going To Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. Its author, Kevin Williamson, has a background in economics, but he's not one of these wonky numbers-only types who reduces every human to a rational utility optimiser. His main point is that when society wants to do something, the best way to do it is for interested people to get together and figure it out for themselves.
Only as a last resort should we invoke the power of politics to pass laws about the issue. The reason is that law is a blunt instrument that is usually wielded by the powerful to exploit the less powerful, and no matter how well-intended the action is to start with, the effect usually ends up making the strong better off at the expense of the less fortunate.
So, while we await the results of the Teutopolis accident investigation, let's hope it doesn't lead to a call for new regulations on the anhydrous ammonia industry. From all appearances, that enterprise seems to be handling things pretty well on its own, and I hope the tank truck makers learn from this accident how to prevent more like it in the future.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.
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