BY RICH JONES
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
US Nitrogen officials moved quickly on Thursday morning to explain what appear to be significant differences between the Texas fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday and the US Nitrogen facility now under construction off Pottertown Road.
At a late-morning news conference called by US Nitrogen, Project Manager Justin Freeark opened his remarks by expressing his sympathy to the families of victims in the explosion Wednesday at West Fertilizer Co. in the small community of West, north of Waco, Tex.
Freeark then read an official company statement:
"Our condolences go out to those whose family members were killed and to those who were injured in this tragedy.
"At this point we have no details about what happened there, what type of plant it was, or whether its operations were similar in any way to ours.
"We plan to monitor the investigation in Texas and see what lessons there are to be learned.
"The products we will be making and the processes used to make them are very safe if they are done right.
"We and our very well-trained staff will be dedicated to doing it right."
The fertilizer plant in Texas has no connection whatsoever with either US Nitrogen or its parent company, Austin Powder Company, a senior Austin Powder official said Thursday.
In fact, the official said, Austin Powder staff were not even aware of the Texas plant until the fire and explosion there on Wednesday.
By later in the day on Thursday, Freeark was able to provide more information.
By that time several media outlets were reporting that the West Fertilizer plant in Texas had 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the facility.
Anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate will be manufactured at the US Nitrogen plant.
Freeark, a chemical engineer, told The Greeneville Sun that anhydrous ammonia "is extremely difficult to get to burn," and that the same holds true for the possibility of explosion.
The anhydrous ammonia at the local site will be used as the "feed stock" to produce the ammonium nitrate, Freeark explained.
Once used for that purpose, the anhydrous ammonia is consumed, Freeark said, therefore becoming a non-factor.
Prior to being used to produce ammonium nitrate, the anhydrous ammonia at the US Nitrogen site will be stored in tanks in a remote area on the 400-acre-plus property, away from any source of combustion and routine traffic.
The project manager also said that, based on initial reports, the US Nitrogen plant will have "several levels of safety" that the Texas fertilizer plant did not have.
Among those safety features, he said, is a venting system, and non-flammable tanks. "No fuel, no fire," he said.
NOT A FERTILIZER PLANT
Perhaps the most important distinction between the Texas plant and the US Nitrogen plant, Freeark said, is the difference between a manufacturing plant (US Nitrogen) and a fertilizer distribution facility (the Texas plant).
An important safety factor with anhydrous ammonia is in storage and handling, such as breaking up the anhydrous ammonia into smaller units for sale, as would be done at a typical fertilizer distribution plant, Freeark said.
That won't happen at US Nitrogen.
The reason is that anhydrous ammonia at the local site, once it's used to produce ammonium nitrate, will at that stage have been consumed and therefore not a safety factor.
Freeark also said anhydrous ammonia will never be broken into smaller units at the Pottertown Road facility.
As for the ammonium nitrate manufactured locally, Freeark said that, in and of itself, ammonium nitrate is not explosive or flammable.
The ammonium nitrate solution that will be manufactured here is known as ANSOL or ANS.
It only becomes explosive or flammable, Freeark said, when mixed with other substances under certain conditions.
That won't happen at the US Nitrogen plant, because nothing will be mixed with ammonium nitrate in Greene County, according to numerous statements by company officials.
NOT IN THE FERTILIZER BUSINESS
Freeark also emphasized that the ammonium nitrate that will be produced at the US Nitrogen plant for Austin Powder Company will be used for mining and quarrying, never in the making or distribution of fertilizer.
Austin Powder Company and US Nitrogen have never owned or operated a fertilizer plant, and have no plans to do so, Freeark said.
"Fertilizer facilities are very treacherous, and the standards and training are not as strenuous as ours," he said.
ELSEWHERE, NOT HERE
Since receiving approval from local governmental authorities to build the US Nitrogen plant in February 2011, company officials have explained many times in public that the liquid ammonium nitrate produced here will be transported from the Pottertown Road facility to other company plants out-of-state -- not here in Greene County -- where the ammonium nitrate will be combined with other substances to form material for use as explosives.
No explosives will be manufactured locally, Freeark again stated for the record at the Thursday morning news conference.
Freeark also said that US Nitrogen and Austin Powder Company have never had an explosion involving nitrogen-based products.
"We are doing everything we can do to get things right every time. There's no substitute for doing things right," Freeark said at the news conference.
"Our ammonium ANSOL, which is mixed with water, is very stable and will be transferred out of state for mining, quarrying and road construction."
HIGHER SAFETY STANDARDS
Further, Freeark said the US Nitrogen plant will operate under a more stringent level of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety standards than does a fertilizer plant.
"We are a manfacturing facility and not a distribution facility. Therefore we operate on higher OSHA standards than the Texas site," Freeark said.
Those standards, adopted in the mid-1990s and later revised, dovetail with the U.S. Evironmental Protection Agency's Risk Management Plan under which the plant also operates, Freeark said.
"We will exceed OSHA standards," Freeark stated.
Another difference Freeark cited between the Texas plant and the local site is in site selection and risk-planning.
He cited news media reports that the Texas facility "has been there since the 1940s. The town grew around it."
"That is unlike the risk-planning we've had here," Freeark said, citing the more than 400 acres that US Nitrogen purchased locally -- in large part as a buffer.
Freeark also said security will be substantial at the local plant.
Security guards will staff the plant at both the front and back sides of the property 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, he said, and a secure fence will surround the property.
Asked at the news conference if he would feel comfortable living next to the US Nitrogen plant, Freeark answered, "Absolutely!"
FIRE CHIEF FOULKS
Joining Freeark at the news conference was Greeneville Fire Chief Mark Foulks.
"We've had contact with them [US Nitrogen] since before they decided to move here," Foulks said.
Earlier this week the Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to enter an agreement with US Nitrogen to have the Greeneville Fire Department provide fire protection at the plant.
As part of that agreement, US Nitrogen has agreed to build a fire training facility in Greeneville to be used for firefighter training.
"We'll be training together with them often and have an emergency response plan," Foulks said. Part of that training will cover techniques such as confined space entries, and high-angle rescues, Foulks said.
(The US Nitrogen plant will include a 14-story-high absorption tower.)
US Nitrogen personnel will undergo rigorous fire safety training, the fire chief said.
Designated personnel at the plant -- six employees per shift -- will be trained to Hazmat "Level A" technician standards.
Freeark also said that "now that it's nice enough to use the barbecue grill," US Nitrogen will begin hosting meet-and-greet events in the community.
"We'll be getting together with our neighbors to explain who we are, what we do," he said.
"We'll start with our immediate neighbors and then move outward from there.
"It's very important for me that we work with the community, and integrate into the community," Freeark said.