60,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a compound that serves as an ingredient in fertilizer and as a highly potent explosive, disappeared from a railway car in April somewhere between Cheyenne, Wyoming and the Mojave Desert, a 975 mile (1,570 kilometer) journey.
This revelation emerged from a May 10 report to the National Response Center made by explosives company Dyno Nobel, reported NPR/PBS node KQED in May 16 reporting.
The website for the NRC, a division of the United States Coast Guard, explains that it “serves as an emergency call center that fields INITIAL reports for pollution and railroad incidents and forwards that information to appropriate federal/state agencies for response.”
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KQED summarized the report, “A railcar loaded with 30 tons of the chemical left Cheyenne, Wyoming, on April 12. The car was found to be empty after it arrived two weeks later at a rail stop in the Mojave Desert.”
Over the course of two weeks, railway Union Pacific transported the car on a trip that “included multiple stops,” the outlet reported.
Dyno Nobel was paraphrased as theorizing a cause of the disappearance: “The material — transported in pellet form in a covered hopper car similar to those used to ship coal — fell from the car on the way to a rail siding (a short track connecting with the main track) called Saltdale about 30 miles from the town of Mojave in eastern Kern County.”
The company believes this to be the case because “The railcar was sealed when it left the Cheyenne facility, and the seals were intact when it arrived in Saltdale,” a representative told Texas news outlet Cowboy State Daily.
While a company spokesperson was directly quoted as positing, “The initial assessment is that a leak through the bottom gate on the railcar may have developed in transit,” the Federal Railroad Administration suspects one of the hopper gates were not properly closed, KQED stated.
The disappearance of such a significant amount of the substance is notable in that it was a primary ingredient in the bomb that domestic terrorists used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.
David King, Emergency Management Coordinator for Campbell County told the Daily that ammonium nitrate is used regularly in coal mining in the area and on its own, won’t explode.
When used in mining, the compound is mixed with diesel and other compounds before having blasting caps attached to it to cause detonation. The outlet noted the 1995 bomb was likewise mixed with nitromethane solvent and an explosive called Tovex.
However, theft appears to not be out of the question. Cowboy State Daily interviewed a former Wyoming lawmaker and retired train conductor, Stan Blake, who told the outlet that it’s easy for a human laborer to drain a hopper of its pellets from the bottom.
“You can use up a big bar and open that gate and it’ll pour out,” he said.
The outlet noted that different machinery can be used to collect the pellets and deliver them to a nearby truck.
Blake was also paraphrased as stating “sometimes cars would be registered as carrying loads, but they’d be empty — and vice versa.”
While the investigation continues, a spokesperson for Union Pacific stated, “Assuming the loss occurred during transport, the release of the fertilizer to the ground beneath railroad tracks should pose no risk to public health or the environment.”
This could make the spill location easy to find. Because ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer, Blake was paraphrased as theorizing that “if it did spill out along the tracks, it’s likely to green things up around the rails.”
But David King told the outlet that there are easier ways to get your hands on ammonium nitrate if you want to make a bomb, adding that if he wanted to make an IED, the chemical “wouldn’t be my choice of explosive.”
Nonetheless, the massive 2020 explosion in the Port of Beirut, in Lebanon—a blast so powerful it created a 140 meter crater, generated a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, and injured 6,500 people while killing 220 almost instantly—was attributed to 2,750 tons (5,500,000 pounds) of ammonium nitrate exploding as a result of a fire in an adjacent warehouse holding fireworks.
A 2020 article by Scientific American explained that under certain circumstances, ammonium nitrate can explode without being mixed with other chemicals, “At high enough temperatures, however, ammonium nitrate can violently decompose on its own. This process creates gases including nitrogen oxides and water vapour. It is this rapid release of gases that causes an explosion.”
The chemical is also attributed to a deadly explosion at a chemical factory in Tianjin, China in 2015 where more than 170 people were killed following corrupt and unsafe business practices typical under the ruling Communist Party.