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You'd Better Watch Out...Fertilizer Thieves are Coming to Town

Posted Nov. 1, 2010

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2002 Ag News and Views newsletter.

I recently attended a meeting where fertilizer security was one of the chief topics. I had heard most of the information before in bits and pieces, but having it presented all at once in an organized fashion got me thinking more about its importance. There are a lot of people in our area who are looking to get fertilizers for reasons other than increasing crop yield.

As most of you know, there are two main uses for stolen fertilizer: explosives and drugs. These are vitally important topics in our world today, and it is essential that we do all we can to make it difficult for thieves to misuse fertilizer.

It is widely known that ammonium nitrate can make a powerful explosive if mixed, handled and stored in certain ways. It is used legally for a number of legitimate purposes, such as construction. The problems arise when someone wants to use ammonium nitrate to make explosives for sinister purposes.

It is not as well known that urea also can be used to make a very powerful explosive. Using urea to make explosives results in a very unstable compound - something that is more powerful and less stable than nitroglycerine.

The bottom line is that if you store ammonium nitrate or urea on the farm, make sure they are placed in a secure area that you can easily monitor. Do not put them in old buildings far away from areas you frequently visit. Report any suspicious people around the fertilizer area to local law enforcement agencies.

Possibly the most bizarre thing that has occurred in my career as a fertilizer expert is the recent use of common fertilizers to manufacture illegal drugs, namely methamphetamine. The most commonly used fertilizer in the drug manufacturing process is anhydrous ammonia, but a drug manufacturer who's a particularly good chemist can also use urea, ammonium nitrate, liquid UAN solutions and other sources of nitrogen. My opinion is that someone who has such a sophisticated knowledge of chemistry could get a productive job and make good money legally.

Drug manufacturers are especially desperate to obtain anhydrous ammonia since it is the easiest fertilizer source to use in making the drug. They will stoop to incredible feats of stupidity to obtain the material.

For those not familiar with anhydrous ammonia, it is a liquid when stored in strong steel tanks at very high pressure and very low temperatures. When exposed to normal temperatures and pressures, it becomes a gas. This gas is very damaging to the eyes and lungs, and is quite unpleasant to any other exposed skin it touches.

When farmers apply anhydrous ammonia, they inject it directly from the storage tank deep into the soil through specially designed knives and hoses. This ensures that the farmer does not have to handle it. In the drug manufacturers' zeal to obtain anhydrous ammonia, they will try to store the material in glass jars, thermos jugs, ice chests and soft drink bottles. Keep in mind that handling anhydrous ammonia in any way other than a closed system with strong steel tanks is extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, thieves will often leave the valve open and release large amounts of ammonia into the air even though they stole only a small amount. This can be dangerous to innocent people living in the area.

While the law of natural selection should eventually take care of this problem, there are things you can do to help law enforcement. The Fertilizer Institute has published a list of steps for farmers and ranchers to follow to help foil the thieves.

  • Be alert. Keep an eye out for unfamiliar or suspicious people attempting to purchase anhydrous ammonia from you or your neighbors.
  • Don't leave tanks unattended for long periods of time.
  • Immediately report releases of ammonia to local police.
  • Position tanks in open areas where they can easily be seen from the road.
  • Return tanks to fertilizer dealerships immediately after use.
  • Watch for items left behind such as duct tape, buckets, ice chests, garden hoses and bicycle inner tubes.
  • Watch for and report suspicious-looking people around your fertilizer tanks. They may be checking out the premises for a late night raid.
  • Buy and install locks for the anhydrous ammonia valves and tanks.
  • Let's all help do our part to make sure fertilizers are used for improving plant growth, not for illegal purposes.