About 100 miles southwest of where I live sits the town of West, Texas. Until the evening of April 17, West was known for its vibrant Czech heritage, which includes an annual folk festival with plenty of mouth-watering stuffed rolls called kolaches.
Now as I write on April 19, West is known as the town where a fertilizer plant exploded with such force – equivalent to that of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake – that the blast concussion was felt some 50 miles away. A fire at the plant set off containers of the main ingredient in its fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia.
For me, what happened in West has grown beyond its human tragedy, because the substance that exploded symbolizes the wild and dangerous nature of God and the Creation called “good.”
Farmers everywhere know the benefits of anhydrous ammonia. According to a helpful factbox at MSN.com’s Science and Technology page, farmers use it as a fertilizer to boost soil’s nitrogen levels. It’s readily available and easy to apply when compressed into a clear liquid. Once applied, it converts to a gas in the soil and helps to “fix” or increase nitrogen, which adds to soil’s ability to grow food plants, especially corn.
The chemical’s description, “anhydrous,” means that it readily combines with any moisture. In fact, this benefit is also its bane, for anhydrous ammonia sucks up water so efficiently that it will dehydrate human skin, freezing the skin and causing severe chemical burns. It will dehydrate mucous membranes and dehydrate the respiratory system as well. Those exposed to it must be treated with large amounts of water to counteract its injurious effects.
For all its benefits, anhydrous ammonia is hideously dangerous to contain. The chemical boils at -28 Fahrenheit, says MSN.com’s factbox. Above this temperature, to be kept liquid and safe it must be stored under pressure in high-strength steel tanks because of its corrosive ability. It’s no wonder that a fire at the West fertilizer plant would set off an explosion.
Anhydrous ammonia has one other claim to notoriety: It is the fertilizer used by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Paul Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. McVeigh’s reckless, unrepentant hated abused something that, when rightfully applied, causes the Earth to produce food more abundantly, a sign of Creation’s goodness. If there exists a better definition of sin, I’ve yet to find it.
Make no mistake; I don’t mean that God is the ultimate cause of the tragedy in West. I believe that God is suffering with the people of West even now. Yet we must not ignore the deeper reality evident in this disaster, that God’s Creation remains as wild and dangerous as the Divine Self, because it contains within it a spark of the Divine that is beyond our control.
This fallacy that we control the world of which we are a part is the sin of hubris, of the self-delusion that we are the Masters of the Universe. There is only one Master/Mistress of Creation, and we are not S/He. When we forget that, we run smack into the wildness against which the Divine tries to protect us, endangering ourselves and the world that God loves.
Cynthia B. Astle is a certified spiritual director and Christian journalist who blogs at Watermarked.com.
This is my first visit to the UCC website.
First let me say that my prayers are with you and your town. I am so sorry for the terrible tragedy that occurred there recently.
Then, I will add that I am an organic gardener, have been an organic farmer, and I am an organic farm inspector. I answer farmer’s questions about sustainable and organic practices for my other job.
I am surprised to read “Farmers everywhere know the benefits of anhydrous ammonia.” Conventional continuous corn farmers? There are so many better ways to produce food and fiber (fallow is mentioned in the Bible. We have a couple thousand more years’ experience in agriculture since then to give new names to what they likely knew then, such as crop rotation, cover crops or green manures and compost) to bring forth nourishment and employment from working with God’s beautiful, life-filled soil. Injecting something so toxic as anhydrous ammonia is as bad for the life in the soil in agricultural fields as it is dangerous for farmers, and so sadly, entire towns–yours this time.
As for me, I will continue to work toward practicalities and policies that reduce our dependence on chemical agriculture, and instead foster those that nurture the creation.