Home to endless fields of corn, wheat, and other crops, America's heartland plays a critical role in meeting the global food supply. To satisfy increasing food demands, farmers and the agricultural industry rely heavily on fertilizer called anhydrous ammonia to increase yield and ensure healthy produce. Anhydrous ammonia is widely used by farmers due to its easy application and affordability. Despite its benefits, anhydrous ammonia is considered a hazardous material. This means that it can pose a risk to the safety of farmers, shippers, carriers, and local communities when transported in commerce—which sadly has proven fatal, for far too many farmers.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is leading efforts to raise awareness and promote adherence to safety regulations throughout the anhydrous ammonia supply chain to help prevent accidents and ensure the fertilizer is used and transported safely.

Adherence to these safety regulations can help farmers prevent potentially catastrophic incidents, particularly regulations for nurse tanks – the large, mobile containers used to transport and supply liquid fertilizers or chemicals to farm equipment in the field. These tanks are commonly mounted on trailers or truck beds and are designed to be easily transportable. On April 25, 2019, in Beach Park, Illinois, a farm tractor was transporting anhydrous ammonia between fields in two trailer-mounted nurse tanks. When the applicator coupling disconnected, the tank released its contents—650 gallons of anhydrous ammonia—and a plume of toxic gas. This incident resulted in evacuations of the surrounding area, with 83 people, including first responders and residents, needing treatment at local hospitals.

The Beach Park incident serves as a reminder of the dangers of transporting anhydrous ammonia. It proves that failure with even small equipment can have major consequences. To address these safety concerns, PHMSA has undertaken comprehensive, data-driven research on nurse tank fatigue to identify risks and reduce nurse tank failures. In addition, PHMSA has conducted extensive outreach with farmers and the agricultural industry to inform about the safety regulations for transporting anhydrous ammonia.

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Nevertheless, ensuring the safe transportation of anhydrous ammonia is a collective effort. Farmers, shippers, and carriers can ensure that they handle anhydrous ammonia safely by:

  1. Wearing protective equipment: Farmers must handle anhydrous ammonia with care, following all safety guidelines provided by manufacturers and regulatory agencies.  This includes wearing appropriate protective equipment, such as gloves and goggles, during handling and ensuring the proper storage of tanks and containers.
  1. Conducting regular maintenance: Ensuring the safe transportation of anhydrous ammonia requires adequate maintenance of equipment. Regular inspections of nurse tanks and delivery systems are essential to identify any signs of wear and tear that could compromise the integrity and effectiveness of the tanks before they become safety hazards. To prevent accidents, farmers should ensure that nurse tanks are properly secured to wagons or vehicles, check ASME plates regularly for damage or illegibility, and inspect the condition of delivery hoses and tires, including checking tire pressure.
  1. Attending trainings: Training can play a pivotal role in enhancing safety throughout the anhydrous ammonia supply chain. Even when formal, comprehensive training is not required by law, farmers are encouraged to ensure that all personnel involved in handling and transporting anhydrous ammonia are aware of safety procedures, what to do in the event of a leak or incident, and the importance of maintaining equipment.
  1. Review PHMSA’s Latest Guidance: PHMSA recently published the Transporting Agricultural Products Safely brochure. This comprehensive safety resource provides a general overview of hazardous materials agriculture-related regulations and includes a section on transporting anhydrous ammonia.

The safe transportation of anhydrous ammonia is crucial for the agricultural industry and ensures the well-being of farmers, shippers, carriers, and communities. The efforts of PHMSA and other stakeholders in promoting safety awareness, conducting research, and implementing training programs have led to a reduction in reported injuries associated with anhydrous ammonia transport. However, challenges remain and there is more work to be done. By prioritizing safety and working together, we can achieve the goal of zero incidents, protecting both the agricultural sector and the public, while ensuring a secure and sustainable future for our farms and the global food supply.

Tristan Brown serves as the deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) with the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

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