More than 30 people were hospitalized after an accident in the Chicago suburb of Beach Park last month after tanks of anhydrous ammonia, a compressed gas used to fertilize corn, leaked into the atmosphere.
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Chemical and Fertilizer Association, said that the farmer in question failed to follow some necessary safety procedures.
That failure, she said, highlights a flaw in what is otherwise a tightly regulated process in Illinois: the transportation of agricultural chemicals – fertilizers and pesticides – from the manufacturer to one of the state’s 350 large storage facilities to the stores that sell to farmers up to the fields themselves.
Most regulations are strict, according to Payne, and overseen by a host of federal and state agencies, including the U.S. and Illinois Environmental Protection Agencies and Departments of Agriculture and Transportation as well as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and more.
The industry has mandatory training for those who store and sell chemicals but the Achilles heel, as evidenced by the April accident, is that traditionally for farmers, much of the training (although not for the purchase of certain pesticides) has been voluntary.
It’s a weak spot, she said, that the industry and the state are looking to strengthen up.
Another challenge faced by those who transport chemicals – as well as those who share the roads with them or live nearby – is the continuing movement of urban and suburban populations into rural areas, particularly in the northeastern part of the state, Payne said.
“The public that lives in rural Illinois – who is fairly used to seeing large sprayers, fairly used to seeing large tanks of anhydrous ammonia, fairly used to seeing large trucks of fertilizer going down the road – are probably more aware of it than what we see when we have urban expansion into rural areas,” she noted. “So it’s a challenge for the ag industry in parts of the state, especially in northeastern Illinois that start to grow out in what typically was farmland.
“I think our challenge in agriculture and for the public is learning to realize that not everyone understands today what goes on the farm.”
The association offers information about safety regulations, training and more at https://ifca.com.