The Department of Homeland Security held a public meeting in Savannah last Tuesday, much to the surprise of almost everyone.
The agenda of the meeting, held in a mostly empty ballroom at the DeSoto Hilton, was to brief the public and collect comments concerning the Department's proposed rule for the Ammonium Nitrate Security Program.
Used mostly in agricultural fertilizers, instant cold packs and as an explosive for extracting coal and stone, ammonium nitrate can also be used to make bombs. It has been the ingredient favored by terrorists, Columbian revolutionaries, the Taliban and Anders Behring Breivik, who detonated an AN car bomb in Oslo, Norway before shooting up a summer camp last July.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people by blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a bomb he made from 4000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
It wasn't until 2008 that Congress passed legislation requiring DHS to regulate the sale and transport of the chemical to "prevent the misappropriation or use of ammonium nitrate in an act of terrorism."
Plans to regulate the chemical were announced Aug. 3 of this year.
Under the proposed rule, anyone who buys, sells or transports ammonium nitrate must register and be vetted against the Terrorist Security Database (TSDB). Records of each sale or transfer must be kept for two years after the transaction. After consulting with universities, private companies and government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the DHS has come up with a proposal that is open for public comment until Dec. 1, 2011. Eleven public meetings have been scheduled in areas where ammonium nitrate usage is highest, mostly near agricultural centers like Sacramento, CA, and Lubbock, TX. More meetings may be listed if deemed necessary.
According to a DHS official in the Office of Infrastructure Protection, Savannah was chosen for a public meeting because it's a common point for regional AN use.
That was news to Bill Easterwood, who traveled to Savannah from Tampa, FL to make his comments on the DHS proposal.
"I don't know there wasn't a meeting in Florida since it's the biggest user of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the country," said Easterwood during the meeting's open forum.
He should know. Easterwood was representing Yara, a company with offices on every continent and one of the top suppliers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the world. He objects to the DHS proposal because would have a negative impact on his industry and the farmers it supplies, as the restrictions on mixed fertilizers and the ensuing paperwork would cause costs to rise.
"We're concerned because our fertilizers don't even have the same properties as detonable ammonium nitrate, and this proposed rule means less productivity for farmers," implored Easterwood to DHS Program Analyst Pamela Norman, who assured him that his comments would be taken into account.
The same sentiment was echoed by Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, who likened the DHS proposal to "using a sledgehammer" when less stringent measures would suffice.
"Economic loss for the agribusiness industry isn't going to prevent another Oklahoma City," Tolar told DHS. "We're asking you to fix this so it does the job of protecting the public but not at the cost of viability of agriculture."
Judging by the nods, most of the rest of the 25-odd heads in the room were also there to support concerns regarding the use of ammonium nitrate in agriculture. Norman said later they had received targeted e-mails announcing the meeting. While regional agribusiness industry executives appeared to have been informed well in advance, there was little publicity for the public meeting, save a paid notice that appeared in the Savannah Morning News the previous day. (Connect Savannah did not receive any notification.)
A follow-up article was printed the following morning announcing the meeting from 10am-2pm. At the actual meeting, DHS officials made their presentation, listened to and recorded four comments and adjourned by 11am.
The few members of the public who were able to attend on such short notice had chemical threats in mind, but not from ammonium nitrate.
Retired U.S. Army Ranger Roy Lynch saw the presence of DHS as an opportunity to address the proposed liquefied natural gas plan that would route as many as 58 trucks a day through some of Savannah's most populated neighborhoods. LNG is known to explode when ignited in vapor form, and Lynch told the DHS panel that the route's proximity to hospitals, schools and a military base make it a vulnerable terrorist target.
"I'd like to request that the Department of Homeland Security put as much emphasis on LNG as it has on this," Lynch commented. "We have a pre-packaged disaster waiting to happen here in Savannah."
After the meeting adjourned, Lynch added, "If that isn't a Homeland Security issue, I don't what is."
Pam Miller and Kent Harrington, co-founders of the anti-LNG activist group Citizens for a Safe Secure Savannah, were also present, if only to observe how DHS conducted the meeting.
"I was curious to hear what was said," said Miller, who spoke out against the proposed LNG route at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting held last February.
"Like FERC, they listened and recorded, but didn't respond back," she continued. "But I did learn more about infrastructure protection and about vetting through the terrorist database."
As of now, the Department of Homeland Security does not require that LNG drivers be vetted against the TSDB the same way drivers transporting ammonium nitrate would be under the proposed security regulations.
The transportation and regulation of volatile chemicals remain a hot button security issue for Savannah. Outgoing mayor Otis Johnson has remained steadfast against the energy giant's attempt to push through its overland transport agenda. In a memo dated Oct. 13, Johnson asked FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff to deny LNG's application for its expansion and transportation route, citing "significant safety concerns."
Perhaps spurred by the same curiosity as the citizens who oppose their plans, two LNG representatives were also in attendance at Tuesday's meeting. They offered no comments.
While the proposed ammonium nitrate regulations don't necessarily affect Savannah directly, they may be a barometer of how DHS handles dangerous materials in the future.
Hopefully, it will give the public more notice next time it's up for comment. cs