OMAHA (DTN) -- The fertilizer industry was left with a black eye following the deadly West, Texas, fertilizer explosion on April 17, 2013. A fertilizer retailer's facility caught fire and stored ammonium nitrate ignited and exploded. Fifteen people were killed, mostly first responders, and another 160 were injured.
In an effort to rehab the fertilizer industry's damaged image, ResponsibleAg (RA) was formed in 2014. ResponsibleAg is an independent, non-profit organization designed to support fertilizer retailers meet federal safety regulatory requirements.
Bill Qualls, executive director of RA, told DTN in the year-plus since the program has been in existence, 1,900 retailers have signed up for the voluntary audit program. As of this month, 140 locations have completed the certification process.
"Those numbers are nice but the more important thing to know is 8,000 unsafe acts or potential non-compliant issues have been caught and addressed," Qualls said. "The vast majority were minor problems, but there were some potentially serious issues that were identified and corrected in that number, as well."
Qualls said the first step for fertilizer retailers who want to take part in the program is to sign up on the RA website, http://www.responsibleag.org/…. The next step is to schedule and complete a comprehensive audit of their facility, which includes safety, environmental, health, transportation, and security aspects.
These audits can be performed by a credentialed ResponsibleAg auditor from within the company or outside the company. There is a list of such auditors on the website. All auditors participating in the RA program must attend and pass a four-day class conducted at a retired fertilizer retail facility located in Owensboro, Kentucky.
During the audit, a checklist of federal regulatory requirements applicable to the storage and handling of fertilizer will be followed. The checklist, which was developed by a technical committee comprised of industry regulatory professionals, contains more than 320 questions.
Qualls said the auditor will complete and submit the audit within 24 hours of completing the task. The participating facility will complete all corrective actions identified within a specified time frame. Once these improvements are made and verified, the fertilizer facility will then become RA certified.
The participating facility has three years to complete the certification process, and the RA certification is good for three years, he said. The annual registration fee in this program is $150 per retail location, $100 per satellite locations and $5,000 for fertilizer manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and importers.
RETAILERS COMPLETE RA
The first retailer to complete the RA certification process was a Crop Protection Services (CPS) facility located in Manchester (Hillsboro), Tennessee. Ryan Walker, location manager for the CPS Manchester location, said the RA certification process was a spinoff of the normal CPS safety audit he has to do every year.
"We have a pretty strict safety audit the way it is and the RA audit was even more so," Walker said. "Our regular safety audit focuses on everything here, but the RA was more focused on the storage and handling of fertilizer."
Walker said he had to make some improvements after the RA audit; he made them right away and his facility was the first RA-certified in the nation. He said some of the improvements were minor like additional signs, but others were more complex involving changes to how they stored their fertilizer.
The CPS Manchester facility, located about 65 miles southeast of Nashville, is a facility selling fertilizer, seed and ag chemicals. Walker said they have seven full-time employees and the business supplies corn, cotton and soybean farmers in their central Tennessee region.
Walker said he focused quite a bit on safety at his location even before the RA program was instituted. In addition to the yearly formal safety audit, he walks through his facility nearly every single day, keeping a look out for possible safety concerns.
He also works closely with his local police and firefighters to make sure they know what is stored in his facility so if there is ever a fire there they know how to fight it. A walk through the facility is done every quarter of a year with the local enforcement agencies as well as the volunteer fire department.
"I think you can't have enough safety programs and the RA program only helps in this ongoing process," he said.
Another retailer in the first 140 who completed the RA certification process was the Brandt Consolidated, Inc. Gridley, Illinois, location. Brandt Consolidated, Inc. operates 24 agricultural supply outlets across central Illinois.
Bill Roth, Brandt Consolidated, Inc. Gridley plant manager, told DTN his facility was one of two within the company to go through the RA certification process. His company utilized an outside contractor and employees to complete the extensive RA checklist items. An RA certified auditor completed the third party assessment process.
The benefit of going through the RA program is to validate that the facility is in compliance with all applicable federal regulations, he said.
"I don't want people to think we were unsafe before, we have a very safe facility," Roth said. "But this additional accreditation is something I'm very proud of."
The upgrades to Gridley included installation of a shutdown switch for anhydrous ammonia storage as well as concrete protection posts every four feet in their anhydrous area. The shutdown switch allows employees to shut off the supply of anhydrous in case of a leak, whereas before a person would have to go physically to close a valve to shut off the supply of anhydrous.
In addition to the re-plumbed ammonia system, some other updates include concrete protection posts around fuel storage facilities, updating wiring inside and out up to the newest electric code, updating signage and installing and wiring double-walled bulk fuel tanks to meet EPA Spill Prevention and Containment and Control Regulations.
Qualls, who has been the executive director of RA only since Nov. of 2015, said the biggest challenge his organization has faced is to educate those in the fertilizer industry about the relatively new program. In addition, the cost of the program and the cost of improvements at fertilizer facilities are other areas, which present challenges for retailers thinking about taking part in the program.
"I think there needs to be a cultural shift when it comes to compliance at some fertilizer facilities," he said. "Most fertilizer retailers are doing it the right way but we need to always to take the time to think about doing it safely."
Qualls added the industry knows how to feed the world, they just need to understand that in today's world, there are regulations that govern the way business is done. For fertilizer retailers to stay in business, the mindset of compliance and safety should be the cornerstone for their operations, he said.
Qualls said trying to convince fertilizer retailers to spend even more money for safety audits is a major challenge, especially in these times of lower commodity prices affecting the bottom line of farmers. As he speaks to various state conventions for retailers across the country, he tells those in attendance that while there is a financial cost to RA the improved safety benefits outweigh these additional costs.
"These additional safety improvements do, however, come at a financial cost," Roth said. "The fertilizer industry seems to face more and more regulations every year and these improvements, while important, are expensive."
Tim McArdle, general manager of Brandt Retail Division said participation in ResponsibleAg is strictly voluntary, but it is necessary if they are a safe, responsible and proactive industry.
"Our hope is to engage our customers and trade partners to achieve a level of compliance and responsibility that will firmly establish a level of confidence in our communities and growers who rely on Brandt," McArdle said. "We have an industry to be proud of and we need to work together to keep it that way."
Despite these cost issues, Qualls believes fertilizer retailers will work to make safety among their top concerns.
"I know there is great value in the ResponsibleAg program; let us show you," Qualls said.
Russ Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN
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