If you’re spreading fertilizers out over hundreds or thousands of acres of open fields, you might be wondering why the materials need so much special handling at all. While fertilizers are safe when applied at recommended levels to bare soil or rapidly growing crops, concentrated amounts of nitrogen or phosphorous can cause a lot of environmental damage. Many fertilizer products also pose personal safety hazards, especially during purposeful mixing or accidental blending. Find out why primary and secondary containment for fertilizer is so important, by exploring the potential risks of a leak or spill.
Surface Water Contamination
Surface water, like streams, creeks, ponds, and lakes, are particularly susceptible to damage from fertilizer runoff. Runoff usually reaches these open bodies of water when it rains more than bare fertilized soil can absorb, or after irrigation of these soils. If there’s a spill on the ground, even a small one from refilling a portable tank, it can easily wash off into a nearby waterway. Farms built in suburban and urban areas are particularly prone to causing this kind of contamination due to their proximity to paved roadways and storm water collection systems. Fertilizer that reaches surface water is prone to causing damaging problems like algae overgrowth and deoxygenation, killint fish and plants. It’s hard for a body of water to recover after significant, widespread die-off.
Ground Water Contamination
Even if you manage to keep fertilizer from running off the fields, or escaping over the surface from a spill, chemicals can still seep through the ground and reach water supplies tapped for human or animal use. Ground water contamination can ruin an otherwise essential well and cause relocation for farm workers or owners. This is almost never a problem if fertilizer is applied to fields at recommended levels, but it most commonly occurs due to spills or intentional dumps on open ground. If it’s necessary to dispose of the last bit of a batch of fertilizer, spread it out over large areas of ground to both avoid soil damage and the likelihood of ground water contamination.
Many fertilizers are incompatible and produce combustion risks or dangerous gases when combined. Few farmers would intentionally mix fertilizers without checking compatibility, but unsafe blends occur accidentally during spills. Storing incompatible fertilizers far from each other, and separating them with different containment systems, is essential for long-term safety. For example, dry urea and ammonium nitrate fertilizers can explode when combined or even stored too closely together. Consult compatibility lists for blending when planning your storage facilities, so incompatible materials are held as far apart as possible. When using a single mixing area, clean the residues thoroughly to avoid inadvertent mixtures of many different chemicals.
Applying too much fertilizer to any one area of soil, whether intentional or accidental, leads to physical and chemical forms of damage that are hard to reverse. Many chemical and organic fertilizers alike are high in salts because the sodium forms of many minerals are easier for plants to absorb than other forms. Adding too much fertilizer acidifies the soil as well. Between both salt and acidity, soil texture changes to encourage compaction and crust formation. Most crops depend on a fluffy and loose soil texture to thrive, so trying to enrich the soil year after year with fertilizer alone can lead to inadvertent damage. Complementary practices like cover cropping and crop residue incorporation reduce the amount of fertilizer needed each year while adding the organic material to balance out the addition and also prevent compaction.
Exposure to Animals and Humans
Fertilizers are generally hazardous to both animals and humans, which is why they fall under the control of agricultural departments in most states. This is true for organic fertilizers as well. In fact, manure slurries and byproducts can actually pose more hazards to farm workers and livestock than purified chemicals when mishandled or stored improperly. Careful storage and secondary containment for fertilizer prevent accidental and intentional exposure alike. Since some fertilizers are highly profitable and targeted for theft, there’s always the possibility of unplanned access from someone who doesn’t know the risks.
Keeping fertilizer from posing risks to the environment around the farm, or the people that work on it, requires a holistic approach. Start with your primary containment methods for holding the slurries or granules, then add on secondary containment with impermeable liners that protect both surface and ground water supplies. Avoid costly fines and soil damage on your farm with durable liner products from BTL Liners.