Dyno Nobel Inc. and rail officials are investigating how 60,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate pellets manufactured by the company disappeared from a rail car and never arrived at its destination in April.
Union Pacific was transporting the chemical, which is commonly found in fertilizers and explosives used in mining, from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Saltdale, California. The incident does not appear to be the result of criminal or malicious activity, Kristen South, senior director of corporate communications and media relations at Union Pacific, said in a statement. Instead, it appears that a leak developed on the bottom gate of the rail car while in transit, slowly dispersing pellets along the tracks during the journey, according to a statement released by a Dyno Nobel spokesperson.
The company is reviewing the incident to understand the cause, the spokesperson says.
“But there is no indication of any danger to the public and no indication the pellets were intentionally taken by anyone,” the company statement notes. “Every indication is the pellets fell from the railcar onto the tracks in small quantities throughout the long trip."
Dyno Nobel, an industrial mining and explosives manufacturing company, produces more than 54 million pounds of packaged explosives and over 1.2 million tons of ammonium nitrate annually, the company states on its website. The material was in transit from a manufacturing site in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on April 12 and arrived in California nearly two weeks later.
On May 10, the company reported the incident to the federal National Response Center, according to the New York Times.
Rail safety, especially as it pertains to chemical transportation, has gained increased attention since the East Palestine, Ohio, rail accident on Feb. 3. Shippers are responsible for ensuring that cargo or freight is properly packaged, says Scott Jensen, director of issue communications for ACC.
“But then after that, while it is in transit, it is in the complete care of the railroad since they handle the operations,” he says.
However, many shippers now own the railcars that transport their products. South said the rail car that was transporting the missing ammonium nitrate is privately owned, but she did not say whether Dyno Nobel is the owner. In March, ACC President and CEO Chris Jahn submitted a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation stating the importance of improved tank-car performance for the shipment of flammable liquids. He called for new federal standards for rail car defect detectors and policies for improved tank-car performance.
But the proposed Railway Safety Act of 2023 rail car upgrades would not apply to Dyno Nobel in this case because the company was not transporting flammable liquids, Jensen says.
In addition, ACC does not represent fertilizer companies, Jensen adds. Christopher Glen, director of political affairs and communication at The Fertilizer Institute, which represents the fertilizer industry, said, “We are monitoring the situation and are in touch with the company, but this is something that is continuing to develop and some key details are still emerging.”
Responsibility for the missing ammonium nitrate will likely come down to the contractual agreement between Dyno Nobel and Union Pacific, says Mark Steger, an attorney specializing in environmental laws and regulations with the law firm Clark Hill. If the leak did indeed come from the bottom gate of the rail car, the railway would likely be responsible for the lost material, not the chemical supplier, Steger says.
While ammonium nitrate may not be a flammable liquid, the material is used in explosives and was the primary ingredient used to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, as the New York Times noted. It was also was the material that led to the 2013 West Fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people, including 12 emergency responders, and resulted in more than 260 injuries.
Dyno Nobel says it “takes extensive measures to prepare materials for transportation.” The rail car was sealed when it left the Cheyenne facility, and the seals remained intact with no signs of leaks when it arrived in Saltdale, according to the company.
The rail car was also observed after departure in the railroad’s Cheyenne yard with the seals intact and no sign of leaks, according to the company. Union Pacific and Dyno Nobel say the material should not pose an environmental or public health threat.
“The fertilizer is designed for ground application and quick soil absorption,” the railway said.