Beirut Ammonium Nitrate Explosion is a wakeup call for Indian Ports. There is need to increase the level of risk awareness in handling and storing of chemicals and other hazardous goods. International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) code has to be implemented with rigour and operational discipline rather than just looking at routine checklists on paper.
On 4 August 2020, 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate (AN) stored at the port of the city of Beirut, exploded, causing at least 190 deaths, 6500 injuries, US$10–15 billion in property damage and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. The 34 year old Maldovan ship M V Rhosus had docked on 21 November 2013; after inspection by port officials it was “forbidden from sailing.” The cargo of AN worth US$700,000 was seized due to non-payment of US$100,000 in port dues.
The port’s general manager, the director general of Lebanese customs and other officials repeatedly warned about the danger posed by the stored AN and the need for removing it. The officials sent six letters between 2014 and 2017 to Urgent Matters in Beirut seeking guidance on how to sell or dispose the AN.
There was a welding operation to repair the warehouse door carried out around 12 noon on the day of the explosion. Between noon and 6 pm when the final explosion took place no one knew what happened. However, heat generated by the welding must have acted on the solidified AN resulting in the catastrophe.
Road map for Indian Ports
1. Ensure that customs and port authorities assess risks associated with seizure and storage of dangerous cargo, ensure safe storage and fast track disposal.
The magnitude of the explosion was equal to 3.3 in Richter Scale and the blast was heard 240 km away in Nicosia Island, Cyprus. The blast destroyed the immediate dockside area, creating a crater approximately 140m wide, which was flooded with seawater. The warehouse where the initial fire and explosions were observed was obliterated and an adjacent grain silo was heavily damaged, destroying 85 per cent of cereals stored.
The killer chemical…
Ammonium nitrate made all over the world, is relatively cheap to buy and is used for making fertilizers. AN is relatively safe when stored properly and is easy to handle. However, a large amount of material lying around for a long time begins to decay. Over a period of time AN absorbs moisture and it eventually turns into an enormous rock. This makes it more dangerous because if it catches fire, the chemical reaction will be much more intense. When AN explodes, it can release toxic gases including nitrogen oxides and ammonia.
Between 1916 and 2020, there have been 31 incidents involving AN in 15 countries resulting in over 3000 fatalities with quantities ranging from 4 tonnes to 2750 tonnes.
In 2015, over 700 tonnes of AN had been seized as the company that had imported it did not have a licence and has been stored at the Manali Container Freight Station. The incident in Beirut has triggered widespread call for action. The consignment was sold through e-auction to Salvo Explosives and Chemicals Pvt Ltd and moved to Hyderabad with full security.
Srinivasan Ramabhadran and KHK Rangan. Authors work for DuPont Sustainable Solutions, Singapore.