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Sales of bomb ingredient largely unrestricted

Despite the Oklahoma City bombing  and warnings from terrorism experts, the U.S. government has yet to follow recommendations that buyers of fertilizer that can be used to make a bomb be required to show ID.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Despite the Oklahoma City bombing nearly a decade ago and repeated warnings from terrorism experts, the government has yet to follow up on a recommendation that buyers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer be required to show ID.

The danger became clear in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh used 4,800 pounds of the common farm fertilizer to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people. The same chemical was used in the October 2002 nightclub bombings that killed 202 people in Bali and has been used in other terrorist attacks around the world, some attributed to al-Qaida.

In 1998, a National Academy of Sciences panel of scientists and security experts recommended that Congress require that buyers of ammonium nitrate provide identification and that stores keep records of the purchases. But a law was never passed.

Fertilizer industry officials say farm-store employees already know their customers and would be suspicious of unexplained sales of ammonium nitrate. And farm organizations have lobbied against the restrictions.

“It’s hard to regulate it, because farmers use a lot of it for legitimate reasons,” said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

As a result, fertilizer sales remain unrestricted across much of the United States, even in the climate of caution since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

At BB&P Grain Handlers on the main strip of this small town, customers can still buy enough ammonium nitrate at $240 a ton to blow up an office building.

“There’s no question you can raise an enormous amount of hell with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil,” said Edward Arnett, professor emeritus of chemistry at Duke University, who co-chaired the 1998 panel.

Several members of the expert panel, and officials with the fertilizer industry, said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has continued to press for the regulation.

ATF spokeswoman Sheree Mixell would not say whether the 1998 recommendation is still being pursued.

“Obviously terrorism is a concern of all of ours, and these chemicals can be a tool for terrorists,” Mixell said. But she added: “A lot of these chemicals have a viable use that is not terrorist by definition.”

“We have to be very careful that our industry partners conduct business as needed for the betterment of society, but balance that with the potential misuses of these chemicals that can be dangerous,” she said.

Two states track purchases
Only two states — South Carolina and Nevada — require ID and track purchases of ammonium nitrate.

In the rest of the country, a voluntary fertilizer industry safety program warns sellers to beware of a customer who “avoids eye contact” or “doesn’t know much about farming.” Mixell said the ATF helped develop the program.

“We have been relatively successful with that, have gotten some good and encouraging leads off that information,” Mixell said.

Still, Arnett said he thought the recommendation was a modest request that would be relatively easy to put into effect.

“I mean, I think of the all the things nowadays where they ask to see your driver’s license,” Arnett said. “They keep track of it if you buy prescription drugs. It’s just the idea of a paper trail when you’re dealing with something dangerous.”

Ammonium nitrate is one of the most common farm fertilizers in the world. Instructions for turning it into a bomb are available on the Internet, and increasingly, countries in Europe and other parts of the world are clamping down on its sale. Other fertilizers that do not have as much explosive potential are available to farmers.

‘The bad guys are as smart as you’
More than 1.5 million tons of ammonium nitrate was sold in the United States in 2003. Missouri sold 238,322 tons in 2003, more than any other state. Like most states, it licenses dealers but places no restrictions on who can buy the fertilizer.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that a foreign or civil terrorist can get ammonium nitrate,” said Bob Pentz, a retired military consultant from the Los Angeles area who served on the 1998 panel. He added: “You have to assume the bad guys are as smart as you.”

Under the South Carolina law, which passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, stores that want to sell three kinds of restricted fertilizers must pay a $250 licensing fee, check the buyer’s ID and keep sale information on file for several years.

“If we have an incident, it gives us a way to trace it back,” said David Howle, director of South Carolina’s program.