A reported fire and potential hazardous materials release near an airport in a small Iowa town is in the news today. Major news organizations reported Thursday morning that local emergency responders were engaged in fighting a fire which may involve the release of hazardous materials including sulfuric acid at a fertilizer plant at or near the municipal airport in Northwood, Iowa. Northwood is an agricultural community of some two thousand residents located in northwest Iowa near the state’s border with Minnesota. Reports in the media indicate that residents are being evacuated due to the potential fume hazard, and some reports indicate that several people have sought treatment at local medical facilities. At press time, the situation remains unresolved, and any speculation as to the cause of the emergency and/or the impact of the presence of hazardous materials on the situation remains unclear.
Fertilizer manufacturing, storage, distribution, and transport can be fraught with danger due to the components often used to produce the material. Such components often include nitrates, ammonia, acids, and other hazardous materials, all capable of causing significant damage and personnel hazards if not properly handled. Such operations, often located in relatively remote agricultural communities that may lack adequate emergency response capabilities, have come under increased scrutiny since an explosion and fire at a plant in the town of West, Texas devastated the small community and killed or injured over a dozen people including many first responders—nearly all local volunteer firemen–in April of 2013. Agricultural operations often enjoy exemptions to a variety of federal rules, a situation which is generally intended to make farm production somewhat less complicated for the country’s many independent growers; however, the potential impact to the safety of the communities in which such operations may be located is something that is now being considered on a more comprehensive basis.
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