Handling Anhydrous Ammonia Emergencies

Spring is just around the corner and anhydrous ammonia is being shipped to fertilizer companies for use during spring planting at farms around the country. The material is transported in cylinders, insulated and uninsulated tank cars, barges and...


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Spring is just around the corner and anhydrous ammonia is being shipped to fertilizer companies for use during spring planting at farms around the country. The material is transported in cylinders, insulated and uninsulated tank cars, barges and tankers.

Anhydrous ammonia bulk-storage tanks are a common sight in many communities across rural America as well as in some urban areas. Anhydrous ammonia is stored in bulk in large-capacity containers installed above or below ground. Normal above-ground storage is in uninsulated pressure storage tanks. Very large above-ground storage containers are often low pressure, refrigerated and consequently insulated. Farmers will often transport anhydrous ammonia from fertilizer plants in trailer tanks hooked to pickup trucks or tractors. The material is not dangerous when handled properly, but if not handled carefully it can be extremely dangerous.

Prepare For The Worst

Efforts are made by shippers, end users and the fertilizer industry to transport, store and provide safe use of anhydrous ammonia. In spite of the safety measures, accidents can and do occur and emergency responders need to be prepared to deal with anhydrous ammonia emergencies. Accidents may range from releases that affect only responders to those that can affect an entire community. Accidents may also involve victims who have been splashed with ammonia. Therefore, planning and training must include emergency medical people as well as other responders.

  • On Jan. 18, 2002, a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed outside Minot, ND. Five of the cars carried anhydrous ammonia. Leaking ammonia killed one person and sent dozens of others to hospitals for treatment. Ten of those seeking treatment were admitted to the hospital. Some local residents were evacuated while others were asked to shelter in place. Civil Defense sirens and local radio and TV stations alerted residents.

  • In 1984, one firefighter was killed and a second was burned over 72% of his body in an anhydrous ammonia explosion and fire that occurred in Shreveport, LA. Ammonia was leaking inside a cold storage building. While firefighters were working inside in Level A chemical protection, the ammonia reached an ignition source. Though it is listed as a non-flammable gas by DOT, ammonia burns inside structures and confined spaces; it is less likely to ignite out in the open. Precautions should be taken for ammonia leaks inside buildings just as for any other flammable gas.

  • An accident occurred in the late 1990s in a cold storage building in Ortana, PA. Two plant maintenance workers, who were also local volunteer firefighters, were conducting routine maintenance on liquid ammonia lines within the facility. A leak occurred, the men were splashed with liquid ammonia and both died. Firefighting personnel responding to the incident were burned by ammonia vapors as they entered the facility in turnouts to rescue the workers.

  • In Delaware County, PA, in the early 1990s, an ammonia leak occurred as workers were removing the material from a cold storage building. The entire first-alarm assignment was exposed to ammonia vapors and experienced symptoms. They all had to go through decontamination and medical treatment at the scene.

Material's Dangers

Anhydrous ammonia is classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) as a Class 2.2 Non-flammable Gas. Unfortunately, this classification leaves two important hazards of anhydrous ammonia unidentified by the DOT placarding and labeling system. Not only will anhydrous ammonia burn under certain conditions, it is classified as a caustic (corrosive) liquid and poison gas in other parts of the world. U.S. manufacturers identify the hazards as flammable, toxic and corrosive.

3_02_hazmat1.jpg
Photo by Robert Burke
Anhydrous ammonia is toxic, and inhalation of concentrated fumes may be fatal. Level A chemical protection is required when responding to ammonia leaks.
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