Field Notes: The aftermath of a grain explosion

Mar 29, 2013

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

Who knew storing grain could be so dangerous?

That’s what we’ve been finding out this week, thanks to a special series by NPR’s Howard Berkes and the Center for Public Integrity, as well as a series published on harvestpublicmedia.org and in the Kansas City Star by Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter Mike McGraw and our own Jeremy Bernfeld.

Our report, “When grain elevators explode,” details the aftermath of the tragic 2011 explosion of a grain elevator in Atchison, Kan., which killed six workers. The NPR series, Buried In Grain, examines the danger and weak regulatory response of entrapments in grain bins, a persistent problem in farm country.

In both series we heard moving accounts of parents struggling with the loss of their sons. In the case of the Atchison explosion, Bernfeld said, the town is still recovering.

“Six community members died and there were others that were injured so I think the town is still healing from that,” Bernfeld said. “But, also, the explosion literally shook the town. People who lives miles away could feel the blast and everyone I spoke to remembers exactly where they were when the grain elevator exploded.”

The company maintains the explosion was a tragic accident. But federal regulators say the company didn’t properly protect workers and, according McGraw, referred the case to the U.S. Attorney in Kansas for possible criminal prosecution. Criminal prosecutions in grain industry deaths are rare and some of the victims’ families are pushing for prosecutors to press the case as a statement to the grain industry.  

The dust that accumulates when storing vast amounts of grain is extremely dangerous – it can be six times more explosive than gunpowder, Bernfeld said. And just one spark can cause a massive explosion.

“I didn’t realize how common these grain explosions were,” Bernfeld said. “Certainly, there are thousands of (grain elevators) operating (safely) nationwide every day, but there are still 7 grain explosions a year on average – 7-8 on average over the last decade – even after making huge advancements in safety and technology. Any one of them could result in fatalities or massive fatalities.”

To see a video about the explosion, click here.