Friday, 26 April 2013

Could a Waco- style explosion happen near Gladstone?

Evacuation Grounds is an apt home for this Queensland Telegraph online article quoting the concerns of our own Peter Neilsen. Is Peter being over-alarmist? I don't think so but let's hope we never find out...

By John Mikkelsen

A GLADSTONE district resident claims the region is sitting on a potential time bomb that could rattle windows in Rockhampton, following the devastating explosion that flattened a community on the outskirts of Waco, Texas last week (pictured).
Peter Neilsen, of Mt Larcom, points to the explosives storage facility at Bajool and the Orica chemicals plant at Yarwun, which represent many times more ammonium nitrate than the small amount of ammonium fertiliser blamed for the Texas explosion which caused mass fatalities.
Texan authorities initially said the blast on April 18, thought to have been caused by an industrial accident, had resulted in 15 deaths but subsequent reports have quoted the toll as 25 or possibly as many as 60 or 70.
Neilsen does not present as an overly nervous type, but he is also mindful of the explosion which tore through a natural gas pipeline facility in Raynosa, Mexico last September, killing 26 workers. Massive pipelines to service the multi-billion dollar LNG plants on Curtis Island will also pass close to his town on their way to Gladstone.
“With a combination of the LNG and Orica, Gladstone is sitting on a time bomb,” he claimed.
“The 24.5 metric tonnes of anhydrous ammonia (a much less volatile product than ammonium nitrate) that caused so much destruction in Waco Texas, is less than the load of the highly explosive ammonium nitrate being carried on a single B double trailer.
“We pass many semis and B doubles heading towards the Bruce Highway loaded with ammonium nitrate every time we go to town.
“Just one semi last week had 26 one tonne bags of ammonium nitrate (a normal single trailer load) which is six tonnes more than the material that exploded in Waco and more volatile if it is activated,” Neilsen said.
However a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Mines said the fertiliser plant in Waco was using anhydrous ammonia not ammonium nitrate and in Queensland this product was regulated.
“Most ammonium nitrate is imported through Port Alma south of Rockhampton while smaller quantities may arrive through Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns. All ports have strict security and safety controls in place,” the spokesperson said.
“Significant amounts of ammonium nitrate are also transported by road from ports or manufacturing plants to mines where it is the main ingredient in explosives.
“Transport of ammonium nitrate is subject to strict security and safety provisions and routine vehicle checks.
“Ammonium nitrate must be transported in a locked container or vessel or be under constant surveillance by an authorised person accompanying the load.”
Mr Neilsen said there were also many thousands of tonnes of the highly explosive material stored within a couple of hundred metres of the Bruce Highway at Bajool.
“A couple of years ago there was almost an explosion at the Bajool explosive battery where the thousands of tonnes of explosives are stored.
“A bearing on a conveyor seized and overheated causing the contents of a storage tank to overheat and start to emit vapour that was potentially extremely explosive.
“The highway was closed several kilometres away to the north and south and the surrounding town and residences were being prepared to evacuate for their safety.
“It was stated in the press at the time that if the storage hopper had exploded it would have blown out windows in Rockhampton, 35kms away (in a straight line).”
The Department’s spokesperson said there were significant safety requirements to ensure storage facilities and manufacturing plants were not located in close proximity to populated areas and had effective safety and health risk management plans and security plans in place to minimise the risk of fire or contamination that could lead to an explosion.


  1. A similar warning about the risk of a major explosion involving B doubles and semis loaded with explosive ammonium nitrate along the pot-holed and narrow Bruce Highway was issued by Federal LNP Member for Flynn, Ken O'Dowd, following the 2011 floods. It is not being over-alarmist in my view.

  2. I used to have a shotfirers licence and the explosive that I used the most was ANFO. ANFO is Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil and the fuel oil most commonly used is diesel.
    Ammonium Nitrate on its own is perfectly safe. To make it an explosive you need the right percentage of diesel to be mixed with it. Too little or to great a percentage reduces its effectiveness that going surprisingly small amount either way & the stuff won't go off. Next you need a shock or ignition for it to go off. In the old days it was a fuse, a detonator into half a stick of gelignite. As time when on I used far better explosives than gelli both in terms of safety & effectiveness.
    I would think that the probability of an explosion would be higher for the five gas pipelines feeding onto Curtis Island rather than Ammonium Nitrate on its own.

  3. We've had the semis overturn on the highway, spilling diesel fuel too Dale. Good to hear it has to be in the right proportion with the ammonium nitrate but not beyond the realms of possibility that could happen, I imagine. I think Peter is thinking one big bang could lead to another whether its initiated by natural gas, LNG storage, ships colliding, or semis crashing and catching fire - accidents can happen.



    Perhaps the Dept of Natural Resources and Mines (DNRM) should access the above link which is produced by Orica, Yarwun. Their statements to this newspaper appear to be at best inaccurate and at worst deliberately misleading and false.
    To make the inference that most Ammonium Nitrate that comes here , comes through various ports when they know full well that Orica make 1/2 million tonnes a year in Gladstone is indeed dishonest.

    The above document states that Orica Yarwun produces 500,000 TONNES of Ammonium Nitrate per year. That is just under 10,000 tonnes per week made at the plant, 7 kms from the city centre of Gladstone. (this amount stated by Orica) This is about 1,400 tonnes every day, 7 days a week every week of the year.

    What the Department has confirmed is that what is produced here is not the total production and only confirms that the danger is far worse that previously believed because of the added amounts imported.

    The Department states in the above article that Ammonium Nitrate must be transported in a locked container or vessel or under constant surveillance by an authorised person accompanying the load
    What then is in those thousands of bags that are clearly labeled AMMONIUM NITRATE that run up the highway every day?. And who is standing guard on the loads when a line of these loads of Ammonium Nitrate bags are lined up on highways outside the takeaway shops.

    In the past recent years there has been 2 large semi and “B” double loads that have run off the road and overturned on the main Road between Gladstone and Mt Larcom alone. One was in the dry form and the other was in emulsion form.
    They were just lucky that there was not an explosion and far greater damage caused when this happened.

    What is also concerning is the fact that in addition to 500,000 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate, they also produce Cyanide, Chlorine and Nitric Acid. They were recently fined for releasing cyanide into Gladstone Harbour.

  5. I did also seek a comment from Orica, but nothing forthcoming to date.

  6. I know of a truck that did explode carrying Ammonium nitrate north of Taroom back in 1974. The newspaper article I will link to says 1972 but I'm pretty sure it was '74. This was a cemi load of the stuff & the driver made the mistake of carrying extra fuel in the form of a 44 gallon drum on the back amongst the bags. The drum leaked, then a mechanical fault happened to the truck that started a fire. The fire grabbed hold and along with 2 locals that turned up the driver retreated well away from the fire. Sadly all 3 were killed. Of the cemi load the authorities worked out later that only 2 ton went off; remember to make an explosive it has to have the right percentage of mix.

    Enduring tribute binds community, an article in the Central Telegraph 5th April 2013 relates the erection of a memorial plaque.

    "In 1972 Ronald John Holzberger, Evan Parker Becker and Douglas Thomas Becker were killed when a semi-trailer carrying ammonium nitrate exploded on Fitzroy Development Rd.

    The explosion destroyed the prime mover and trailer, leaving a crater in the road two metres deep, five metres wide, 20 metres long and left two families reeling.

    Parts of the truck and trailer were scattered up to two kilometres away.

    The explosion was heard and shook houses 88km away in Moura and 55km away in Theodore"

  7. These are but a few but it confirms that there is a serious risk under the right circumstances and HALF A MILLION TONNES of ammonium Nitrate is driven out of the gate at Orica in Yarwun every year and travels down our National Highways.
    There has been a number of semis and "B" doubles carrying this substance that have crashed in Central Qld and it is probably only luck that has prevented a disaster. How long can the luck hold out??

    Accidental explosions
    Although relatively stable in isolation and when handled and stored carefully, ammonium nitrate will support combustion initiated in another material. Its oxidising quality will intensify a fire, even in the absence of air. When subjected to sufficient heat, ammonium nitrate becomes molten, extremely sensitive to impact, and will detonate, as demonstrated by the following major accidents:

    • In 1921 in Krieweld, central Europe, 30 tons of ammonium nitrate in two rail cars had turned into solid blocks. In order to break these blocks apart, a 100-gram cartridge of mine explosive was fired into them. The rail cars exploded, killing 19 people;
    • In 1921 in Germany, the town of Oppau was levelled and 500 people were killed when 450 tons of ammonium nitrate blended with ammonium sulphate exploded at the BASF manufacturing plant;
    • In 1942 in Belgium, several hundred people were killed at a fertilizer plant when a cartridge was fired into 150 tons of ammonium nitrate;
    • In 1947 in Texas City, USA, 576 people were killed when two ships carrying ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded;
    • In 1974 in Taroom, Queensland, 2 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on a truck caught fire and exploded, killing three people;
    • In 2001 in Toulouse, France, 30 people were killed and 2,242 injured when 400 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the AZF fertilizer factory exploded;
    • on April 22, 2004 in North Korea, during shunting operations two train wagons carrying ammonium nitrate came into contact with a wagon containing fuel oil and exploded. The explosion creating a large crater and levelled everything in a 500 m radius, killing 161 and injuring approximately 1,300 people ; and
    • in May 2004 in South-East Romania, 16 people were killed and 11 injured when a truck carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer overturned and exploded.

  8. Interesting stuff, Peter and Dale. Could you try posting your link to the Taroom incident on the QT article, Dale? (link at top of my main post)

    1. As Peter has indicated, there have been a number of devastating explosions of ammonium nitrate through C20 - 21 history. The most destructive of all occured in the port for Galveston Texas shortly after WW2, and at that stage from memory, it was the largest non - nuclear, man linked explosion of all time. I posted on this extensively on the old Agmates site when it was a useful tool for sharing information, before it went pear-shaped.

      Here is one account:

      In 1947, the French-owned commercial ship Grandcamp, a former U.S. warship, arrived in the port in Texas City, located on Texas’ Gulf Coast, to receive a load of ammonium nitrate. On the morning of April 16, at approximately 8:00, a fire—possibly caused by a discarded cigarette—broke out in one of its holds.

      The ship’s captain, fearing that the cargo would be ruined if the hold was flooded with water, ordered that the hatches be shut and steam be piped in. The steam only served to increase the heat of the fire; by 8:30, when firefighters began shooting water into the hold, the fire burned so hot that the water vaporized.

      At 9:12, the temperature inside the hold reached 850 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate to explode. “The entire dock area was destroyed, along with the nearby Monsanto Chemical Company, other smaller companies, grain warehouses, and numerous oil and chemical storage tanks,” describes the Handbook of Texas. “Smaller explosions and fires were ignited by flying debris, not only along the industrial area, but throughout the city. Fragments of iron, parts of the ship’s cargo, and dock equipment were hurled into businesses, houses, and public buildings.”

      The impact of the explosion knocked over people 10 miles away in Galveston, shattered windows 40 miles away in Houston and registered on a seismograph in Colorado. It knocked two planes out of the sky and “caused a fifteen-foot tidal wave that crashed onto the dock and flooded the surrounding area,” writes Texas City’s Moore Memorial Public Library.....

      The 27 Texas City firefighters were all killed, along with many longshoreman, sailors and bystanders. Hundreds more were killed either in the initial explosion or one of the secondary disasters caused by the explosion. The military, local hospitals, the Red Cross and other organizations sent in relief, setting up temporary hospitals and shelters.

      The danger was not over for Texas City, however. The High Flyer, a ship carrying 1,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, had caught fire in the aftermath of the Grandcamp explosion. It burned for the entire day as the area around it was evacuated; finally, at 1:00 a.m., it exploded, killing two, destroying a nearby ship and causing even more damage to the port area ..........

      There were hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of victims; many of these lawsuits were combined into a single lawsuit, the country’s first class action lawsuit. The case, Dalehite v. United States, was decided in 1953 by the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government.

      Though the victims lost the lawsuit, Congress passed a bill in 1955 that provided $17 million to nearly 1,400 claimants. The government also created new regulations on the storage, transportation and handling of ammonium nitrate in the years following the disaster.

      As with many, many things that are part of our everyday existence, ammonium nitrate is not a threat if handled, stored and used correctly.

      Cheers al

  9. Hey Al, again, that is very interesting, but as for your closing lines, it all comes down to the human factor once again. I know you are busy tripping around but would be good if you could post that extract or part of it, on the QT website. Peter's comment too would be useful, about other incidents overseas.
    We all know we take our lives in our hands travelling the Bruce Highway but this puts another perspective on the stretch up through Bajool, small village between Mt Larcom and Rockhampton.

  10. Yes, there are some near miss incidents at the Bajool turn off. Now there is to be more 'Prill' based near Dingo Township.. 37 klm east of Blackwater.


  11. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
    workplace safety equipment townsville


Welcome to a place that has a focus (but not exclusively) on regional and rural Australia open for anyone living anywhere to read, learn and interact. Please feel free to make a comment.

You can use some HTML codes such as, a for active; b for bold; i for italics

Active code - substitute a for @
<@ href="web address">linked words

[Click Here] for a link to another site where there is a very good simple explanation.