Greene Co. residents concerned about ammonium nitrate plant

7:18 PM, Apr 18, 2013   |    comments
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The explosion in Texas has some East Tennessee residents concerned a similar blast could happen locally.

Anhydrous ammonia, the dangerous gas that caused severe burns in West, Texas, is commonly used as a fertilizer, especially in West Tennessee, where it's compatible with the soil and flat land. It's also going to be used at a new facility in Greene County, which will manufacture ammonium nitrate.

US Nitrogen said its 400 acre property on Pottertown Road in Moheim will use raw materials to make ammonium nitrate, an ingredient used to make explosives. The explosives will be made at a separate facility, but anhydrous ammonia, the gas, is created during the complicated process.

"It can burn your skin, it can blind you. So that's when the problem comes in, when that material is released into the atmosphere," said Dr. Hubert Savoy, with the UT School of Agriculture. "If you don't have a respirator and protective clothing on, you're going to be hurt. You could be blinded, you could be hurt severely."

Savoy said when people are overexposed to the gas, it can be deadly, but it happens rarely.

"The more dangerous aspect of it would be if you had a release of the gas, either by someone inadvertently opening, or a tank rupture, which would be very,very uncommon," said Savoy.

Lori Stokes has lived near the site for two years.

"I mean my whole body just cringed. Considering where they're putting that plant, it alarms me some because it is really close," said Stokes.

Officials at US Nitrogen said neighbors in Greene County do not have to worry about a similar explosion.

"We have invested a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money in making this the safest of the ammonium nitrate industry," said Justin Freeark, with US Nitrogen.

Freeark will be the plant manager when the facility starts operation, which is expected the next year.

"I've been asked several times if I would live next to this facility, and my answer is 'absolutely'," said Freeark.

In a statement from US Nitrogen, the company said the blast has prompted officials to keep an eye on the investigation, and see what lessons there are to be learned.

"What went wrong? If you pay attention to the details, and focus on doing it right every time, it's a very safe process. It's a very safe set of products. What went wrong?," asked Freeark.

While those answers were not available Thursday, Freeark said he hopes he does not have to answer those questions for their Greene County facility.

"The gas dissipates very quickly. It is difficult to form explosive environment outside," said Freeark. "Inside, it's a different story. Outside, it dissipates much more quickly."

Freeark said the company is working on a contract with Hazmat that would get crews to the scene 15 minutes faster, if there was an emergency.

Stokes said she is hopeful an emergency never arises.

"I mean as long as they do what they say they're going to do. If not, you know, I will be concerned. But hopefully they'll stand up to their word."

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