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Could West Texas inferno happen here?

Simplot, fire agencies work to keep Lathrop, Manteca safe

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Could West Texas inferno happen here?

The Simplot fertilizer plan on Howland Road.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED April 19, 2013 1:58 a.m.

LATHROP – The image of a West Texas fertilizer plant exploding Wednesday night startled a nation already on-edge after the terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon earlier this week.

And with a plant producing the same chemicals right in the heart of Lathrop, the question begs to be asked.

Could that happen here?

Since 1983 the J.R. Simplot Company has used an inherited campus on Howland Road to produce its wide line of fertilizers – from Best-brand bags consumers can purchase at home improvement stores to liquid solutions for agri-business customers. The company stopped producing ammonium nitrate – widely known for its explosive properties – after the bombing in Oklahoma City and other incidents.

But anhydrous ammonia – tens of thousands of pounds of which was reportedly being stored at the plant outside of Waco, Texas – is something that the company still produces at the massive 24-hour facility locally famous for its red-and-white smokestack.

While the likelihood of the same event occurring again would be unlikely, local emergency personnel are prepared – training for “mass casualty incidents” regularly and even simulating a scenario on the Simplot campus.

“Last year we trained with Lathrop-Manteca Fire District out there as if we were responding to an actual anhydrous ammonia spill,” said Manteca Fire Chief Kirk Waters. “Those types of things prove to be invaluable. If something were to happen we have what we call ‘Unified Command’ where we would go out and offer our support and our PD (police department) would be out there and we’d work together so they weren’t completely overwhelmed with the whole thing themselves.

“I think that training for situations like that really makes a difference.”

The company released a statement Thursday about the incident, and a J.R. Simplot employee from the company’s headquarters in Boise, Idaho declined to answer any follow-up questions.

“Our hearts go out to the people of West Texas as they struggle to recover from last night’s tragic incident,” the statement read. “There is nothing more important to the J.R. Simplot Company than the safety of our employees and our communities. This is why we are so diligent in everything we do every day to ensure the safety of our operations.

“Like the rest of the public, we are waiting for the investigation to be complete so that we understand the facts related to this incident.”

Simplot took over the 340-acre complex that was previously inhabited by the Occidental Chemical Company after a series of lawsuits regarding conditions that were rendering male workers infertile forced the conglomerate to look elsewhere.

An ammonia leak in the 1980s forced the voluntary evacuation of East Manteca residents residing downwind from the Lathrop plant. Simplot did not own the plant at the time

According to The Fertilizer Institute, anhydrous ammonia is used as a nitrogen fertilizer and is created through a chemical process that combines nitrogen from the air with hydrogen from natural gas.

Its caustic nature makes it a quality additive to many household cleaning products and it also serves as a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceuticals.

But all of the chemicals involved with the process showed what can happen when the out-of-control fire at the Texas plant provided enough fuel, and heat, for an explosion one would typically expect to find in a war-zone.

Those that work closely with Simplot to ensure that safety protocols are followed, however, know how much time the company puts into making sure that its safety regulations are cross-checked and carried out.

“Anytime you’re talking about something like that the potential for something devastating is going to be there,” said Lathrop-Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely. “But they take safety there seriously. They take a lot of precautions to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen.

“They have really intricate fire systems, and if something is going to be off-line they let us know and have fire-watchers on-deck – somebody who’s only job is to watch for fires that might start so they can be caught in the incipient stage and put out.”

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