Indiana authorities keep close watch on fertilizer plants

More than 15 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas.
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Witnesses in West, Texas say it felt and sounded like a nuclear blast and the Texas governor calls the explosion at a fertilizer plant a "nightmare scenario."

A day since the blast, people are still missing and there's no clear cause. The explosion killed as many as 15 people, injured more than 160 and destroyed dozens of nearby homes and businesses, including a nursing home.

According to the state chemist, Indiana has two fertilizer plants. There are scores of storage facilities. Eyewitness News did some checking and found other industries, some near residential neighborhoods, are using chemicals that can be just as dangerous as fertilizer.

The horrific fire and explosion in Texas, was felt by public safety agencies across the country, including Indianapolis.

"They keep you up at night, yes," said Homeland Security Chief Gary Coons.

Because similar threats exist in Marion County?

"Yes, and around Marion County," he answered.

The threats come from hundreds of businesses, like an Anderson magnesium plant that exploded in flames in 2005. Families were evacuated from neighborhoods, roads were closed.

In Marion County alone, the Local Emergency Planning Committee knows of roughly 300 companies that manufacture, use, or sell chemicals and other materials that can be just as dangerous as fertilizer.

The EPA website lists all the companies and what inside them. Many are located in or near residential neighborhoods.

That information, Indianapolis firefighters, say is critical to them being prepared.

"We are," said IFD Deputy Chief Dave Owens with certainty. "It's what we do."

When firefighters aren't racing to an alarm, they are inspecting businesses, taking inventory and planning ahead to fight a possible fire.

"Walk through the plant, see where the chemicals are, see what the safety devices are and how they work, so if there is an emergency, they can stay safe," said Marion County Local Emergency Planning Committee chief Bill Beranek.

He says Federal law requires companies tell fire departments what chemicals are stored in their places. Trucks have laptops to call up that information. All carry foam needed to smother chemical fires. The county has two hazardous response teams.

"It's the pre-planning, it's knowing what in the building it's calling reserves when you need it," Owens insisted.

Fire departments are watching Texas closely for what they can learn from another community's tragedy.

Seeing the Texas blast on TV made Mary Price think again about her neighbor across the street.

"What's going to happen over here? I don't know how dangerous it is, really," she said.

Price lives across the road from a Co-Alliance facility in Clinton County. But Co-Alliance says the plant doesn't even have the same fertilizer that was behind the Texas explosion.

"Very little concern," said state chemist staffer Matt Pearson, talking about Co-Alliance and many other Indiana facilities.

He says the chemicals like those in the Texas blast are stored and sold at some places in Indiana, but at many, like the Scircleville facility, he says, "the liquid fertilizer there is 20 percent nitrogen. The rest of it is water. It doesn't go boom, it doesn't burn, it doesn't explode. Same thing with the dry fertilizer. It's almost as safe as salt."

Plus, new reports show the Texas plant did not have all required safety features "to make a fertilizer explode," says Pearson. "I will be very interested to see what happened in Texas to make a plant explode like that."

The state chemist's office says there are always hazards. 450 Indiana dealers store fertilizer, 300 of those carry anhydrous ammonia.

Seeing some of that information and finding out what hazardous materials, maybe in your neighborhood, is easy. The EPA website allows users to search by state, county and zip code.

EPA facility reports