While many farmers are moving away from reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, most farmers still depend on synthetic chemicals to boost soil fertility and combat weeds. For example, most corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest apply anhydrous ammonia to soils in the spring and fall to add the nitrogen to their soils that plants need to grow. Farmers depend on anhydrous ammonia because it contains more nitrogen than alternative sources, it is easy to obtain from their suppliers, it can be applied many weeks before planting, and it’s generally the least expensive source of nitrogen.
But anhydrous ammonia has a number of drawbacks, including the fact that it must be stored as a pressurized liquid and it requires special equipment to transport and apply the chemical, which when released as a gas can be harmful to people. In fact, the federal government lists anhydrous ammonia as an “extremely hazardous substance.” If there is a spill or “release” of an extremely hazardous substance, the person in charge is required to immediately report the spill or face stiff penalties, including fines of over $57,000.
Because most farmers and farm cooperatives deal with these chemicals at some point, it’s important to know what you must do if a spill occurs and to communicate that information to everyone you work with. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (or CERCLA) requires a person in charge of a farm or other facility to immediately report a spill of any hazardous substance. The most important thing to remember is that, if a spill occurs, you must call the National Response Center immediately. How soon is “immediately?” Within 15 minutes, according to EPA policy. If you fail to call the National Response Center within 15 minutes of discovering the spill, the EPA will most likely bring civil penalty claims against you for as much as $57,317 per incident. The maximum penalty amount is adjusted annually for inflation. Note that calling 911 or other first responders is not sufficient to satisfy the legal requirement. Rather, your first call must be to the National Response Center (NRC). The NRC will coordinate any local response.
Are there exceptions to calling the NRC within 15 minutes? Not really. The only exception is if you are physically unable to make the call, such as where all phone lines are down or where no one is physically able to reach a phone. Since most of us have cell phones in our pockets at all times, there usually will not be an excuse to not make the call.
In addition, if you store anhydrous ammonia on your farm or at your business in quantities in excess of 500 pounds, you may also be subject to additional requirements under the Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) and Section 112(r) of the Clear Air Act (CAA). These laws require you to report inventory of extremely hazardous substances to state and local authorities, to implement a chemical accident program, and submit a Risk Management Plan to EPA, among other things.
If you have questions about whether your farm or business is complying with federal regulations or is adequately prepared in the event of an accident, please contact me and I’d be happy to help.