Americans were shocked Wednesday by pictures of a fiery inferno in West, Texas, that killed 15, injured 200 and damaged 80 homes after a fertilizer plant in the community exploded.
McPherson County residents may not know the volatile chemical that was manufactured in the Texas plant is widely used in farming operations in McPherson County and across Kansas.
Dillard Webster, McPherson County director of emergency management, said anhydrous ammonia is a significant safety risk in McPherson County.
McPherson County does not have a fertilizer plant, but smaller quantities of anhydrous ammonia are located throughout the county. In addition, rail cars carrying the anhydrous ammonia and other volatile chemicals regularly role through the county.
The largest concentration is a large tank at 1451 Fifth Ave., 1/2 mile north of U.S. Highway 56 near Conway.
Although anhydrous tanks can explode if heated, Webster said the tanks that store the substance in McPherson County are sturdy, and explosion is unlikely. Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the Texas explosion. Foul play is not believed to be involved.
The more imminent threat from anhydrous ammonia is injury caused by contact with the chemical's vapor.
Anhydrous ammonia vapor can cause serious burns to the eyes, nose and skin. Unfortunately by the time most people detect anhydrous ammonia in the air, they are already being injured.
"If you are smelling it," Webster said, "it is burning you."
When anhydrous ammonia is used as a fertilizer, tanks are attached to plows pulled by tractors, and the tanks feed streams of the chemical into the ground as the plow passes. The tanks resemble large, horizontal propane tanks.
As the chemical comes in contact with moisture in the soil, it is neutralized, Webster said.
Farmers working with the chemical must take precautions, including wearing gloves and masks, keeping up on equipment maintenance and training to use the substance properly.
When people who are not properly trained in using the chemical come in contact with it, problems can arise, Webster said.
Anhydrous ammonia is frequently stolen out of large nurse tanks in rural areas to be used in the illegal production of methamphetamine, Webster said.
Several months ago, one of these thefts resulted in a substantial vapor leak in Lindsborg.
The community was put on alert, but the chemical dissipated in the air and no one was injured, Webster said.
The 10 fire district in the county train annually in dealing with anhydrous ammonia leaks, such as these, Webster said.
"Anhydrous is one of the most prolific chemicals in our community," he said. "It all has a potential to be dangerous if not handled correctly."