On Ammonium Nitrate Big Coal is Guilty Too

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The Nation

On Ammonium Nitrate Big Coal is Guilty Too

Investigators are blaming ammonium nitrate for the massive explosion that devastated most of the town of West, Texas on April 17th. 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 air and seep into groundwater from strip mining say residents of mining communities.  Opponents of so-called "mountain top removal" are in DC this week, taking that message to the Obama administration in a week of actions 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 bombs and 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 20 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% compared to 9.4% for people elsewhere in Appalachia, studies by among others, the University of West Virginia show. “Birth defects are over twice as high than if the mother smokes during pregnancy,” says Haltom who served in the US military as an explosives expert.

But just like giant agri-business, Big Coal would rather keep ammonium nitrate unregulated. Activists are hoping that the explosion in West and the home-made 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, the Obama administration 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. May 8th will see the culmination of a week of Appalachia Rising action 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’s 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.

Laura Flanders

Laura is YES! Magazine's 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

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