This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
Maybe you garden and know all about fertilizer. But if not, you need to know that fertilizer can be made from a multitude of mixes of different chemicals.
The one fertilizer that has caused catastrophes in the past is a product made of just one chemical: ammonium nitrate. It provides plants with nitrogen so they can thrive, but when mixed with something like diesel fuel, it becomes deadly.
It’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City 20 years ago. In 2013, it’s what exploded at a farm supply business in the Texas town of West.
Yet, despite those and many more deadly explosions over the years, ammonium nitrate fertilizer remained very popular with farmers and ranchers.
“So why’s it still used? It’s very useful as a fertilizer, simply,” Jake Mowrer says.
Mowrer is a fertilizer expert at Texas A&M and says ammonium nitrate works especially well to grow hay in Texas. In past years, tens of thousands of tons of it were used here every year.
However, in recent months, something began changing. The use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Texas has plummeted. According to state data, 73,000 tons of it were used in 2005.
Over the next few years, use dropped some but was steady until the past 12 months. That’s when the data show use suddenly falling to less than half of what had been a decade ago. Why?
We got some insight by visiting the farming and ranching community of Waller, just northwest of Houston.
It’s a busy morning at Haney Feed and Farm Supply. Doyle Sitton has run the place for nearly 60 years. When it comes to ammonium nitrate fertilizer, he’s been ahead of the times.
“Well yes, I used to carry it in bags,” Sitton says. “I made the decision not to carry it about 20 years ago … because the extra paperwork to keep up with it.”
Sitton says he stopped selling ammonium nitrate fertilizer because over the years, new regulations — prompted by terrorism and safety concerns — meant dealers like him had to account for every pound and store it securely and safety away from anything that could ignite it.
“I don’t think they’re over-doing it (with the regulations). As you get more and more kooks in this world, ha, you’ll have to watch ‘em closer,” Sitton says.
What’s more, after the West explosion, insurance rates for dealers carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer have gone up. So increasingly, there are more and more dealers like Sitton, dropping it from their inventories.
“I think there’s a lot of dealers that just don’t want to deal with all the paperwork,” Donnie Dippel, a rancher in La Grange and president of the Texas Ag Industries Association, says.
Dippel says he can use other mixes of fertilizer chemicals that are not hazardous the way ammonium nitrate is. He says for those Texas dealers still carrying it, new state rules mean inspections are now underway to make sure storage is done safely.
Does he think Texas is safer now than it was pre-west explosion?
“Yes sir,“ Dippel says.
Could this be the beginning of the end for one of the most popular and effective fertilizers that unfortunately also has such a safety and security risk? That’s doubtful according to Jake Mowrer, the expert at Texas A&M.
“My personal prediction would be we’re not going to see an end of ammonium nitrate, there’d be too much blow back from the people who rely on it for it to be banned,” Mowrer says.