Photo of Ammonium Nitrate by Firsthuman
Twenty years ago, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had no problem buying forty fifty-pound bags of ammonium nitrate from the Mid-Kansas Coop. No questions asked, just like you and I would buy a loaf of bread.
They mixed that ammonium nitrate with racing fuel and had the makings of the deadliest bomb in U.S. history.
Twelve long years later, Congress in 2007 got around to authorizing the Department of Homeland Security to "regulate the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate by an ammonium nitrate facility . . . to prevent the misappropriation or use of ammonium nitrate in an act of terrorism."
Almost ten years later, the DHS is still working on those rules.
At this writing, in most states you can still go out and and buy forty 50-pound bags of ammonium nitrate, just like Tim McVeigh did. You can even buy it on Amazon.
All this despite the fact that most U.S. farmers don't even use ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer anymore. In fact, according to Iowa Farmer Today, while ammonium nitrate used to be a top choice, it now only accounts for three percent of the market, with growers preferring urea and other nitrogen-based fertilizers.
Today in the United States, most ammonium nitrate is used for . . . drum roll please . . . explosives in the mining industry. The fertilizer industry has been supportive of common-sense regulations that require users to register and show a photo ID to purchase. But representatives of the mining lobby call this an "unnecessary burden" and wants their industry exempt.
Meanwhile, ammonium-nitrate explosion devices continue to be the bomb of choice for terrorists around the world, most recently killing dozens in Brussels.
Homeland Security spokesman S.Y. Lee told USA Today last summer that, despite Congress giving the agency the power to regulate ammonium nitrate nearly ten years ago, they're still trying to “strike a balance that both ensures public safety and minimizes the potential economic impact that can arise from additional regulation.”
Congressional oversight seems to be another piece of the problem. U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, recently suggested that regulating terrorists’ bombs is as futile as regulating assault rifles. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer pushed Johnson on whether weapons that can "kill a lot of people" should be regulated, Johnson replied, “so do bombs,” implying that neither can be prevented. Johnson opined:
"It’s their ideology. Their ideology calls for the slaughter of innocents. That's the root cause."
Most industrialized countries around the world, including our neighbor Canada, have either banned or introduced tight regulations on the sale of ammonium nitrate.
After India suffered ammonium-nitrate bomb terror attacks in 2008 and 2011, the country's leaders jumped into action and completely banned the import of ammonium nitrate in loose granule form, which can be easily made into bombs. They put strict regulations on its uses elsewhere.
But, in America? Twenty-one years after Oklahoma City, you can still buy the stuff on Amazon.
Yet another case of American Exceptionalism.
And it looks like our collective waiting period for getting rules enacted will continue indefinitely. I contacted Adam Comis, a spokesperson in U.S. Representatives Bennie Thompson's office, the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee. His answer: “We don’t don’t expect a rule from them any time soon."
Jud Lounsbury is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin and a frequent contributor to The Progressive.