Some 60,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used as both fertilizer and a component in explosives, went missing as it was shipped by rail from Wyoming to California last month, prompting four separate investigations according to KQED.
A railcar loaded with 30 tons of the chemical left Cheyenne, Wyoming, on April 12. The car was found to be empty after it arrived two weeks later at a rail stop in the Mojave Desert, according to a short incident report from the explosives firm that made the shipment.
The company, Dyno Nobel, made the report May 10 to the federal National Response Center, or NRC. The report also appeared last week in an NRC database of California incidents managed by the state Office of Emergency Services last Wednesday.
Ammonium nitrate is commonly used as fertilizer. It’s also an ingredient in high explosives and was used in the homemade bomb detonated in the 1995 attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Dyno Nobel says it believes the material — transported in pellet form in a covered hopper car similar to those used to ship coal — fell from the car on the way to a rail siding (a short track connecting with the main track) called Saltdale about 30 miles from the town of Mojave in eastern Kern County.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the California Public Utilities Commission, Union Pacific, and Dyno Nobel are looking into the disappearance, and the railcar is being transported back to Wyoming to undergo a thorough inspection.
It is unclear how or when the chemical disappeared during transit, but Dyno Nobel told KQED News, “The railcar was sealed when it left the Cheyenne facility, and the seals were still intact when it arrived in Saltdale. The initial assessment is that a leak through the bottom gate on the railcar may have developed in transit.”
Given that the chemical can be used to make highly explosive bombs, the loss of such an enormous amount of explosive material is highly concerning, and Stan Blake, a former Wyoming lawmaker and retired train conductor told Cowboy State Daily News it wouldn’t have been difficult to drain the train car of the material. Blake told the outlet that each car has two or three sections with a gate at the bottom, and said, “You can use up a big bar and open that gate and it’ll pour out.”
Dyno Nobel did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment but said in a statement to Cowboy State Daily News that the railcar had made multiple stops on its journey and that there is a team working to investigate how the supposed leak occurred. “We take this matter seriously and will work to understand how it happened and how it can be prevented from occurring again,” the spokesperson said.
This is the latest in a spate of train mishaps that resulted in toxic chemical spills, fires, and mass damage to towns as trains in the Midwest have derailed several times in the last six months. In one case, a spill in East Palestine, Ohio caused widespread panic among residents who were quickly evacuated due to the extreme toxicity of the chemicals spilled.