The tragic explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August was, as we so often hear, “an accident waiting to happen”. Some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, taken from a ship impounded in the port seven years ago – and later abandoned, along with its cargo, by the shipowner and cargo interests – exploded after a fire broke out. At the time of writing, the death toll is put at more than 200, with many thousands more injured.
The event also destroyed the port facilities – the main import hub for Lebanon – and the surrounding area, and damaged much of the city, still recovering from decades of war and terrorist activity. Alongside the human toll, the continuing destruction of what was once known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ is also a great loss to humanity.
The 4 August blast immediately reminds us of the similarly devastating explosion in the port of Tianjin, China in 2015, again caused by illegally stored ammonium nitrate, and also the 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas. In all three cases, the incident began with a fire and the blast happened when firefighters were on scene; many were killed – including volunteer firefighters in the West Fertilizer incident.
But if the Beirut blast was an accident waiting to happen, how many other accidents are out there just a spark away from happening? Officials in Chennai, India are waking up to the hazards posed by ammonium nitrate in warehouses, stored there after being impounded by customs authorities. A similar situation exists in Aden in Yemen, where an estimated 4,900 tonnes of ammonium nitrate is alleged to have been sitting in containers at the port for three years.
All these are exceptional situation; the fact is, ammonium nitrate is stored in significant quantities in many ports and terminals around the world, as well as in manufacturing plants and warehouses and at end-user facilities. Ammonium nitrate, properly handled, is stable and has many uses, primarily in fertilisers and in mining explosives. That explosion hazard has also long been used by terrorists, including the Provisional IRA and the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. As a result, in this security-conscious world, stocks of ammonium nitrate are – or at least should be – properly monitored.
If this were a transport-related incident, we can be sure that the regulators would be taking urgent action, putting in place strict provisions. Indeed, there are several UN entries covering the substance in its various forms, placing it in either Class 1, Division 5.1 or Class 9, depending on its purpose and the degree of hazard presented. Those regulations are observed in international transport and in many countries, not just in the developed world, for land transport.
But there is no comparable set of global regulations for the storage of dangerous goods. GHS contains provisions on classification and health and environmental hazards, as well as physical hazards, but does not specify how materials should be stored or handled. Quite often the details are left to local legislators – port authorities, fire departments, and so on – who may or may not have the expertise to set those rules. And to a large extent it relies on those actually doing the storage and handling to declare that they have goods on site. And, as we have seen, there are plenty of reasons for not making that declaration. Peter Mackay[post_title] => Letter from the editor on ammonium nitrate [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => letter-from-the-editor-on-ammonium-nitrate [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-08-11 14:08:55 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-08-11 13:08:55 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://hcblive.com/?p=25660 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )