Ont. case spurs fertilizer firms’ call for security audit

Brief and inconsequential though it turned out to be, losing track of a trailerload of ammonium nitrate is as good a reason as any for Canada’s fertilizer industry to review its security measures, an industry group recommends.

The Canadian Fertilizer Institute, which represents fertilizer makers, wholesalers and distributors, said in a release Monday that an incident last week in Ontario’s Niagara region “does offer an opportunity for the fertilizer industry to audit current security programs for ammonium nitrate.”

The incident involved a lone man’s cash purchase of a large amount of ammonium nitrate from the Vineland Growers Co-op outlet at Jordan Station, about 30 km northwest of Niagara Falls.

According to RCMP June 9, the retailer believed the buyer was buying and transporting the fertilizer on behalf of a known regular customer, but “this was subsequently found not to be the case.”

No identification was obtained at point of sale from the man, RCMP said, nor was a plate number caught for the minivan he used to tow a trailer carrying away the fertilizer.

But the man contacted the province’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team later on June 9, RCMP said, after a description and sketches had been broadcast through regional and national media.

Media interest in the case had been spurred by its timing, coincidentally days ahead of international leaders arriving in southern Ontario for separate meetings of the G-8 and G-20.

The fertilizer was recovered from two addresses in Toronto, and police found “no suspicious circumstances” in its purchase. Niagara Regional Police said June 9 that no charges were expected to be laid in what’s since been dubbed a “gardening incident.”

“This indicates that the current federal regulations and extensive industry security awareness programs are working,” Dave Finlayson, executive director of the CFI-led Fertilizer Safety and Security Council, said in the group’s release Monday.

“But, the prudent thing to do is to review the incident and see if there are ways we can improve the system.”

“Promptly reported”

Ammonium nitrate’s known use in improvised explosives led the federal government in June 2008 to add new regulations on the sale of the product, with the support of the CFI and its safety council.

“It is important that the rules be clearly communicated and understood by all those involved,” the CFI said Monday. Among Ottawa’s current requirements for sellers are:

  • registering with the explosives regulatory division of Natural Resources Canada as a seller of ammonium nitrate,
  • requesting from customers proper identification, such as government photo ID, and their intent for buying ammonium nitrate,
  • informing end users and transporters about how to protect ammonium nitrate from theft,
  • providing annual inventory reports, and
  • reporting any suspicious activity to “appropriate authorities.”

In the Vineland Co-op case, the purchase was “apparently made without legally-required documentation,” the CFI said, but added that “as required by the regulations, the error was promptly reported to government authorities” and the buyer was located shortly afterward.

Retailers selling ammonium nitrate before the new federal regulations arrived in 2008 had operated under the safety council’s voluntary code of practice, the Ottawa-based CFI said.

Since 2008, the institute said, “agri-retailers selling ammonium nitrate have been diligent in meeting or exceeding the regulations.”

CFI has also backed the On Guard for Canada education program, set up to inform retailers and farmers about vigilance in sale, storage and use of ammonium nitrate.

The RCMP’s last major investigation over fertilizer took place shortly before the opening of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, when two tonnes of ammonium nitrate allegedly went unaccounted for at a West Coast bulk chemical terminal.

An “exhaustive” police audit followed at offices in B.C., Edmonton, Calgary and Salt Lake City and found the discrepancy in fertilizer stocks at Kinder Morgan’s facilities existed only on paper.

Among the most infamous fertilizer-bomb attacks was the destruction of a U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Domestic attackers in that case detonated a combination of ammonium nitrate and motor fuel, killing over 150 people.

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