Investigators are blaming ammonium nitrate for the massive explosion that devastated most of the town of West, Texas, on April 17. The chemical, which was stored in large amounts at the West Fertilizer Co., is used to make fertilizer. It’s also used by coal companies to blow up mountains.
Ammonium nitrate poses a threat to human and environmental health not only when it catalyzes fatally in a dangerous stockpile but also when particles of the stuff shatter into the air and seep into groundwater from strip mining, say residents of mining communities. Opponents of so-called “mountaintop removal” are in DC this week, taking that message to the Obama administration in a week of action culminating May 8 with a delivery of toxic water to the Environmental Protection Agency.
GRITtv was in Central Appalachia the week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Texas, fire. While terrorism of the bomb-plots sort seemed far away, explosions there were a daily occurance. Vernon Haltom of Coal Mountain River Watch, who showed us around, cited estimates that more than a million acres and tens of thousands of streams have been affected since so-called mountain top removal began. Having depleted the area’s rich underground seams, in the late 1970s coal companies in Central Appalachia began blasting the tops of the mountains to get at coal just beneath the surface.
Since then, more than twenty peer-reviewed studies have raised alarms, some linking trace amounts of ammonium nitrate, benzine and silica to health problems, including low birth weights and elevated death rates in mining areas of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
People living near mountaintop mining have cancer rates of 14.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent for people elsewhere in Appalachia, studies by the West Virginia University, among others, show. “Birth defects are over twice as high than if the mother smokes during pregnancy,” says Vernon Haltom, who served in the US military as an explosives expert.
But just like giant agribusiness, Big Coal would rather keep ammonium nitrate unregulated. Activists are hoping that the explosion in West and the homemade bomb blasts in Boston will turn up the heat on regulators.
Mining companies aren’t the only ones who know ammonium nitrate’s blasting power. Readily available and easy to assemble, it’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building and it’s what improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, are usually packed with.
In 2011, Obama’s EPA vetoed the largest single mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history, slowing production but issuing no binding regulations. Democrats have introduced an Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act, H.R. 526) which would effectively impose a moratorium. The current week of Appalachia Rising action is calling for the EPA to step in. There’s no earthly reason why the agency isn’t charged with monitoring ammonium nitrate. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency is mandated to reduce the risk from explosive chemicals.
Why isn’t ammonium nitrate already on the EPA’s list? That was one of Senator Barbara Boxer’s questions to the agency in the wake of the Texas fertilizer plant disaster. Informed fingers have pointed at lobbying by the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute but up to now, Big Coal has avoided tough questions. No industry uses more ammonium nitrate for underground and above-ground explosions.
The last and, so far, the only time a federal agency proposed monitoring the chemical, the National Mining Association lobbied against it. After the Department of Homeland Security proposed regulating the of the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate for security reasons, the National Mining Association requested an exemption, citing the “undue burden on the mining industry.”
Texans and Appalachians don’t need another tragedy to know it’s long past time the “undue burden” on human life received priority. In West Virginia, GRITtv spoke with Vernon Haltom and Vernon “Hoot” Gibson, uncle of famed mountain defender Larry Gibson, whose family’s cabins sit on some of the last surviving peaks of the Kayford Mountain.
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