Growing threats

by Becky Gillette

Published: December 30,2002

It is immediately obvious how Sept. 11 has affected the airline industry. There are far more security regulations, searches and delays. What is less well known is the impact of the events of Sept. 11 on agriculture.

Pesticides and fertilizers are essential parts of modern production agriculture. But some fertilizers can be made into bombs, and there are concerns that pesticides could be used by terrorists to poison water, food or the air.

While no new statutory regulations have been passed affecting agriculture since 9-11, industry has risen to the challenge by adding more security to protect their products, says Michael Tagert, director of Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

“Everything that has been done is voluntary, and has been initiated on the part of industry to protect their product,” Tagert said. “Ag products like pesticides and fertilizers are an essential part of production. Regulators such as myself know we must protect those types of products not just for security purposes, but also for proper stewardship.”

Preventing accidents or misuse helps assure that Mississippi growers continue to have the products needed to produce.

Most ag chemical companies have implemented heightened security policies to protect products in storage. That includes increased security patrols, and more thorough screening of visitors to manufacturing plants and distribution centers. Tagert said more is being done such as verification of driver’s licenses and certifications to buy restricted use products.

“Even though that was in place in the past, there is much more stringent screening to make sure people are who they say they are,” Tagert said. “And most companies have worked out patrol schemes with local police for manufacturing sites and different distributions sites. The industry has really stepped up recognizing the importance of protecting their products, and not just for security sake. If a product is misused, it reflects wholly on the industry and specifically on that company. Industry has stepped up to do its part. We also need proper stewardship to make sure the products are not misused so that the Mississippi growers continue to have access to the products they need.”

Methyl parathion, a poison for cotton, was misused indoors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to kill roaches. The product doesn’t break down well inside, and the resulting toxic effects to home residents led to a huge and expensive government cleanup of homes in the Pascagoula area. As a result, methyl parathion is being taken off the market. Because it was misused in homes, it now isn’t available for agriculture.

The two fertilizers of most concern are ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia. Ammonium nitrate in certain quantities is an explosive, so security needs to be well maintained for that, Tagert said. Also, anhydrous ammonia is one of the ingredients that has been used in illegal drug production.

Anyone can buy ammonium nitrate, and about 1.8 million tons were sold in the U.S. last year. It was the main ingredient in the truck bomb that killed 168 people and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Terrorist groups in the Middle East and Europe have used ammonium nitrate to make similar types of bombs.

“Since the tragic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, federal law enforcement agencies have asked the fertilizer industry to tighten security on supplies of ammonium nitrate,” says Harry C. Ballard, branch director of the feed, fertilizer and lime program of BPI.

“Fertilizer dealers and sellers can protect themselves by knowing their customer base and asking to see identification from strangers trying to buy ammonium nitrate. They should also be suspicious of nervous-acting individuals wanting to use cash to buy large quantities of ammonium nitrate in bags and are unwilling to let the dealer deliver.”

Ballard recommends producers and farm managers take precautions by storing supplies of ammonium nitrate in buildings that lock, by checking the facility each morning for signs of theft, and by conducting regular supply inventories. Businesses that ship ammonium nitrate should use cable or heavy-duty locks on trucks, and use railcars or barges that are secure.

Pesticides represent a significant area of concern because of the potential for harm if applied with the intent to contaminate air, water and food.

“People could die, become sick or suffer psychological harm,” says Jim Haskins, pesticide division director for BPI. “Within days of the Sept 11 attacks, the federal government began an effort to coordinate programs to protect the nation from bio-terrorism and chemical attacks. On Dec. 5, 2001, representatives from several federal agencies met with the Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to assure Congress of the effort to coordinate anti-terrorism procedures for chemical products.”

Haskins said if a pesticide is extremely toxic and classified as “restricted use,” the applicator must present certification to purchase the product. The dealer must verify that the certificate is current, and verify the identity of the purchaser.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com</a.

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