Explosive Material Missing From Rail Car

Union Pacific train pulling cargo cars. | Image by Moab Republic, Shutterstock

The Federal Railroad Administration and Union Pacific officials are investigating the disappearance of a large shipment of explosive chemicals during a rail trip from Wyoming to California.

In total, roughly 60,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate did not reach its final destination. The chemical is used as a fertilizer as well as an explosive. According to a report filed by the manufacturer on May 10, the chemical was released during transit “due to an unknown cause.”

The shipment from explosives manufacturer Dyno Nobel originated at the company’s plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and was being transported via Union Pacific Railroad. When the rail car arrived in Saltdale, California, two weeks later, the product was missing.

A spokesperson from Dyno Nobel told news outlet KQED  that the rail car had been sealed before departing from Cheyenne on April 12, and the seal was still intact when it arrived in Saltdale two weeks later.

The company believes that a leak may have developed during transit through the bottom gate of the rail car, allowing the chemical pellets to spill out on the ground during the 1,000-mile trip, according to a Dyno Nobel spokesperson.

The Federal Railroad Administration spokesperson said that Union Pacific’s investigation led to a similar conclusion, stating, “initial findings suggest this was likely a leak caused by a component of the rail car.”

Although ammonium nitrate is highly explosive, Union Pacific officials said there is little danger to the public from this likely leak because the product would have been quickly absorbed into the soil.

“If the loss resulted from a railcar leak over the course of transportation from origin to destination, the release should pose no risk to public health or the environment,” the spokesperson stated, according to The Independent.

“At this point in the investigation, we do not believe there is any criminal or malicious activity involved,” the spokesperson added.

Dyno Nobel, the Federal Railroad Administration, the California Public Utilities Commission, and Union Pacific Railroad are continuing the investigation into the missing explosive.

In the past, ammonium nitrate, often used in the mining, quarrying, and construction industries, has been at the center of several catastrophic incidents.

In 1947, a 2,000-metric-ton shipment of ammonium nitrate killed at least 581 people in Texas City after an accidental explosion.

Ammonium nitrate was also the key ingredient used by Timothy McVeigh nearly three decades ago during the Oklahoma City bombing. The 1995 terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building resulted in 168 deaths.

The chemical was the cause of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, in 2013 that killed 15 people, injured 200, and destroyed hundreds of homes in the area.

More recently, ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored at a port in Lebanon exploded in 2020, killing more than 200 people.

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