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Devastation in West, Texas

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What do Boston and West, Texas, have in common today? Clearly, neither community understood the deadly nature of that which operated within its bosom.

Timothy Johnson, a Ph.D candidate in the history department at the University of Georgia and a research fellow at the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science, takes on the latter topic with this brief piece:

Today we are more likely to associate fertilizer explosions with intentional acts of terror, from the high profile events in Oklahoma City and Oslo to the countless daily acts of violence across the Middle East.  And yet, the expansion of the fertilizer industry over the last one hundred years has also led to a number of unintentional catastrophic explosions similar to the occurrence in West, Texas this week.  As the small Central Texas community regroups after this tragic event and investigators seek its cause, it is worth reflecting on some of the inflammatory consequences of a volatile commodity that we cannot live without.

In 1913, the German chemist Fritz Haber and BASF engineer Carl Bosch brought the world’s most efficient synthetic fertilizer factory online in Oppau, Germany.  This achievement won Haber a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918, since his discovery had broken a bottleneck in synthesizing nitrogen—the greatest limiting factor in plant growth. 

Germany’s monopoly on the so-called “Haber-Bosch” process also represented a strategic advantage during World War I.  Synthetic nitrogen production was a boon to farms, but also to arms, and Haber-Bosch nitrogen plants fueled Germany’s war machine.  While Germany was self-sufficient in explosives production, American engineers were unable to replicate the German process.

Two years after the Treaty of Versailles, on September 21, 1921, BASF’s Oppau nitrogen plant exploded in a ball of flames that killed more than 500 people and sent a shockwave felt as far away as Munich, 228 miles away.  The blast occurred after workers had used a small dynamite charge to loosen some hardened fertilizer in a silo.  American scientists in the Department of Agriculture and National Research Council studied the causes of the blast seeking to avoid a similar incident, even though American scientists still had not yet mastered the German Haber-Bosch process in the 1920s.

By the Second World War, however, American engineers had caught up to their German counterparts, and U.S. firms were synthesizing nitrogen for explosives on a massive scale.   When the war ended, many plants converted their facilities to fertilizer production.  To aid recovery, the federal government sold these fertilizers at cost to European countries to encourage agriculture and alleviate starvation in Europe.  No one suspected that a small portion of these peacetime gifts would provide the fodder for one of the worst industrial accidents in American history.

In Texas City, Texas, the morning of April 16, 1947 saw a spectacle that played out in a fashion eerily similar to events in West, Texas on Wednesday.  Men loading the SS Grandcamp noticed fire coming from the ship’s hull, which was filled with 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizers bound for France.  As people—including schoolchildren—gathered to watch firefighting efforts, the ship exploded in a massive blast.  The explosion killed more than 400 people, set another fertilizer-laden ship aflame, leveled nearby factories, ignited oil refineries, and rained flaming shrapnel across a large area.  In the investigation following the explosion, many workers reported that they had not realized that they were working with highly explosive materials.

This week, as investigators seek the causes of this latest catastrophe, Americans should pause to reflect of the potential dangers of chemical fertilizers in our communities.  Quite apart from the hazards of these explosive materials when they are intentionally misused for destructive purposes, workers and citizens who live in the vicinity of these facilities deserve a greater modicum of protection from these highly flammable chemicals.   We have built our modern food system around these life-giving chemicals, but we overlook their explosive history at our peril.

Johnson is currently writing a dissertation entitled "Growth Industry:  Unearthing the Origins of Fertilizer-Fueled Agriculture in America."

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