The Health Beat Blog

Thursday, Apr 18 2013 10:00 PM

Texas blast worries neighbors of a proposed west Kern fertilizer plant

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

This week's deadly blast at a Texas fertilizer depot has renewed safety concerns among those in Kern County opposed to a fertilizer and power plant proposed near Tupman.

"This (explosion) is showing that things can happen," nearby farmer Mark Lambooy said Thursday. "Best-laid plans don't always work out."

California Energy Commission staffers reviewing the Hydrogen Energy California application said they will be watching to see what caused the West, Texas retail plant to explode, killing an unknown number of people and injuring more than 150. These staffers noted Thursday that the two plants appear to be significantly different in size and function.

Rick Tyler, a hazardous materials expert at the commission, said the HECA plant would not store ammonium nitrate, which is a highly volatile chemical often used in fertilizer production. It would, however, store 63,000 tons of another potentially explosive material, urea ammonium nitrate.

But the UAN, as the chemical is known, would only be stored as a solution in water, thereby reducing the possibility of an explosion.

"Thus, the ammonia products stored on site will exist only in intrinsically safe forms," Tyler wrote in an email.

He said the greater threat to the surrounding community, including an elementary school a mile and a half away, would be an accidental release of a toxic gas such as hydrogen sulfide or anhydrous ammonia.

"We haven't completed our analysis yet, but we will evaluate all of the hazards that we believe pose potential risks to workers and to the surrounding public," Tyler said. He emphasized that the agency had been examining the potential for explosion and other dangers long before the accident in Texas.

HECA opponents have raised the possibility of a blast at the site, but until now their main focus has been air pollution and the possibility of an accidental release. On Thursday, they reiterated concern about the idea of an explosion.

"Since most of the fertilizer is flammable but not necessarily explosive, a large fire is probably more of a threat than an explosion," farmer Tom Frantz wrote in an email. "But, a fire can heat up pressurized storage tanks which contain anhydrous ammonia to the point where they will explode."

A HECA spokeswoman expressed sympathy for the Texas victims and said the project's Massachusetts-based owner, SCS Energy LLC, will be monitoring the accident investigation to see what lessons may be learned.

She noted that questions remain to be answered, including what materials may have been stored there, and in what quantities.

"In our plant, we will use double-integrity, steel-refrigerated storage tanks for anhydrous ammonia for maximum safety, not pressurized ambient temperature storage tanks used in many facilities," spokeswoman Tiffany Rau wrote.

As proposed, HECA would produce nitrogen-rich products, including fertilizers. Alternately, during times of peak demand for electricity, the 453-acre project would generate about 300 megawatts of power for sale to the power grid.

It would also create up to 200 permanent jobs and provide a test of carbon-burying technology. The project has been subsidized by a $408 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Texas facility was much smaller than the HECA project and, said Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs for The Fertilizer Institute, a trade group, did not manufacture fertilizer. It served mainly as a retail facility that accepted products from other plants.

The Energy Commission staff is expect to release a preliminary review of the HECA project later this month or early next month. That is to be followed by hearings and other proceedings, with a final vote coming toward the end of this year.

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