Environmental History - Professor Shedden
November 4, 2013
A History of Synthetic Fertilizers: From Europe to Guatemala
The day is April 19, 2013 in West, Texas. As newspapers flood the streets and reports flood airwaves saying the death toll has raised to fourteen, sixty town residents are still unaccounted for. Two days ago an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company production plant caused what would eventually total to fifteen deaths, over 160 injured residents, and the damage and destruction of over 150 buildings and 50 homes. Ten of these deaths were volunteers who were the first to arrive on the scene of a fire at the plant who were soon consumed by the explosion that preceded the initial flames. Federal law requires that the Department of Homeland Security be notified if anyone has over one ton of ammonium nitrate, yet what began as a fire lead to a devastating explosion after the ignition of a reported 540,000 pounds (270 tons) of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds (55 tons) of anhydrous ammonia on site at the plant. Both of these chemical compounds have been essential components of synthetic fertilizer since the beginning of its commercial production roughly one hundred years before this disaster occurred. The West Fertilizer Company paid off $5,250 in fines to the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Material Administration the previous year for unsafe business practices, but was still allowed to stay in production after regulators observed farmers driving away with gallons of fertilizer held in unmarked tanks in the back of their trucks from the site. There are around 12,000 chemical facilities, water treatment plants and oil refineries near communities like West, Texas in the United States. An additional 400 high-risk chemical plants operating in the United States pose threat to populations greater than 100,000 people.
Synthetic fertilizer usage is industry standard in agriculture throughout the world. While this was not the case sixty years ago, government incentives and claims of increased crop yield encouraged farmers to use fertilizer internationally. However the long term effects were not known or advertised along with the product that so many governments approved and distributed. The effects on human health and surrounding environments are still largely unknown and unfolding through long-term environmental shifts throughout the globe.
The use of synthetic fertilizers emerged as mid nineteenth century European farmers found themselves scrambling to produce enough food to feed growing populations. Overworking arable soil for generations exhausted lands and led to a decline in agricultural production in England during the 1840s. Nitrogen is naturally present in the Earth’s soils, but as the world population rose and farmers planted more seeds, crops took available nitrates from the ground faster than bacteria could naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil where they exist as nitrates. Nitrate...