Just when you thought the impact of coronavirus would dominate worldwide health and safety headlines the disaster in Beirut suddenly focused attention on the safe storage of dangerous chemicals. In this article, we look at what happened, why it happened, and whether such an incident could happen in the UK.
The incident in the Lebanese capital began when welding of a door at a warehouse in the Port of Beirut started a fire. This spread to nylon bags of fireworks stored inside the warehouse. While this fire raged a fire crew arrived to put the fire out as several people gathered and started live-streaming what was happening. The blaze spread to chemicals stacked in the same warehouse and detonated the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilisers, quarry explosives and bomb-making.
The first explosion sent up a cloud of smoke followed by flashes of light from the ignited fireworks. The second explosion can about 35 seconds later. It sent an orange-red cloud into the air, surrounded briefly by a white condensation cloud. This cloud easily showed the movement of the shock wave outward from the explosion. Nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of ammonium nitrate decomposition, caused the orange-red colour of the smoke.
The second explosion caused around 200 deaths, 6,000 injuries and left about 300,000 people homeless. It is estimated Beirut suffered around US$10–15 billion in property damage. Incredibly, it could have been worse. Buildings surrounding the warehouse partly absorbed the explosion. Nearby grain silos protected the city centre behind them from the worst effects of the blast.
The explosion was felt in surrounding countries and was heard in Cyprus, over 150 miles away. The US Geological Survey recorded it as a seismic event of magnitude 3.3. Specialists at the University of Sheffield have estimated the explosion, equivalent to around 1.1 kilotons of TNT, was one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history.
What Made The Explosion Possible?
A cargo ship carrying the ammonium nitrate berthed in the port in 2013. An African explosives manufacturing company had ordered the shipment for mining in Mozambique. The ship may have stopped in Beirut because of mechanical issues and engine problems or it may have been because the ship’s owner had insufficient funds to pay tolls for the Suez Canal. The crew took on a shipment of heavy machinery, which they placed on top of the doors to the cargo space containing the ammonium nitrate, causing the doors to buckle, which damaged the ship. The port state control deemed the vessel unseaworthy, and it was forbidden to set sail.
Eventually, the shipowner went bankrupt and abandoned the ship. The port authority seized the ship for outstanding port fees and fines for refusing cargo. The ship remained in port for a year, with a skeleton crew trapped aboard amid the dispute. Lawyers argued for the crew’s repatriation on compassionate grounds, because of the danger posed by the cargo still aboard the ship. An Urgent Matters judge allowed them to return home in 2014.
By order of the judge, the cargo was impounded. It was unloaded and stored in a warehouse at the port, where it remained for the next six years. The ship sank in the harbour in February 2018.
Customs officials sent several letters to judges requesting a resolution to the confiscated cargo, proposing that the ammonium nitrate be exported, given to the army, or sold to a private explosives company. One letter sent in 2016 mentioned ‘the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions’ and requesting to ‘re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it’.
Photographs taken just days before the explosion seem to show the chemical stacked high in labelled sacks and practically spilling out of the doors. It was also widely reported that port employees inspected the warehouse about six months before the blast and warned that if not moved, the chemicals could “blow up all of Beirut”.
Could It Happen Here?
The control of ammonium nitrate is tightly regulated in the UK and most it has less than 28 per cent nitrogen, making it difficult to blow up. The government introduced this standard after the IRA had used it to make explosives in the 1970s.
Under the Dangerous Substances (Notification and Marking of Sites) Regulations 1990 (NAMOS) anyone storing quantities of ammonium nitrate over 25 tonnes must notify the relevant regulatory authorities and the emergency services.
If storing 150 tonnes or more of the chemical and for storing certain ammonium nitrate mixtures, it requires an additional notification to the local fire service to allow emergency services to prepare their response to incidents on such sites. Local Authorities also have to give permission, known as Hazardous Substance Consent, to anyone intending to store over 1250 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Storing larger quantities of ammonium nitrate is subject to the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations 2015 (COMAH).
Over half of the ammonium nitrate used in this country is imported. When it arrives it is initially put in large piles, but only for one day. According to the HSE, there are 134 sites in the UK that each store over 1,250 tons of the chemical.
There are also at least three ammonium nitrate producing plants in the county, making fertiliser for the farming industry. They should limit any stacks of the chemical to a maximum of 300 tons, with low-density types kept below two metres high and stored in single storey and well-ventilated specially dedicated buildings made from materials that do not burn–like bricks or steel.
Yet the absence of robust safety regulations, poor storage and a more explosive type of chemical were not the only causes of the Beirut explosion. In the aftermath, the government and port authority have blamed the judiciary for not actioning requests to release the cargo, while the judiciary claim they are being made scapegoats. The explosion came at the end of a seven-year sequence of events that show the tragedy that can result from government and business not taking health and safety seriously enough with respect to other considerations.
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