Beirut Explosion: How Did 2,700 Tons of Ammonium Nitrate Get Warehoused at the Port?
On Tuesday, the Port of Beirut was blown off the map by an explosion so big it shook the entire capitol city of Lebanon. The death toll is still growing, but last I saw, 135 people were reported killed and over 5,000 were injured. Videos of the blast hit social media streams, and they’re absolutely terrifying.
Stunning video shows explosions just minutes ago at Beirut port pic.twitter.com/ZjltF0VcTr— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) August 4, 2020
The huge explosion is being linked to a warehouse at the port storing over 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, one of the world’s most highly used chemical fertilizers but also the main component in many types of mining explosives according to a Gabriel da Silva written article in Scientific American.
It’s hard to grasp just how much ammonium nitrate 2,700 tons is, especially without a point of reference. Helpfully,
Unless you’re too young, twenty-five years has probably not been long enough for you to forget how devastating that Oklahoma City explosion was. And this explosion in Beirut happened with well over a thousands times more ammonium nitrate. The incident is obviously still under investigation, but the story news sources like Reuters is reporting is that welding work set off fireworks that started the large fire that triggered the ammonium nitrate in the warehouse.
While da Silva writes in the Scientific American article that it is “relatively difficult for a fire to trigger an ammonium nitrate explosion,” he points out that this did happen before with the Tianjin explosion back in 2015. Indeed, this feels all too similar to when I was writing in Universal Cargo’s blog about that explosion at a port warehouse five years ago. But what’s strange is the story of Beirut’s explosion actually starts before the explosion in Tianjin ever happened.
On September 23rd, 2013, the motor vessel Rhosus, under the Moldovian flag, sailed from Batumi Port, Georgia for the destination of Biera in Mazambique. Onboard was 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The ship never reached its destination. An October, 2015 issue of the Arrest News details the story of the ship and how all that ammonium nitrate, which turned out to be a ticking time bomb, ended up in that warehouse:
En route, the vessel faced technical problems forcing the Master to enter Beirut Port. Upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the Master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo. The vessel quickly ran out of stores, bunker and provisions.
The Arrest News is published by ShipArrested.com, which is a network of top maritime lawyers around the world with the mission “to connect the world’s maritime law experts to guide you through swift ship arrests and releases.” This is important, as the ship master and crew members who were trapped onboard m/v Rhosus contacted ShipArrested.com for legal help getting home. Lawyers from the network, working on a humanitarian basis, successfully put in a legal application for the sailors to disembark and return home. The dangerous ammonium nitrate played a large role in the application and crew being granted freedom:
“Emphasis was placed on the imminent danger the crew was facing given the ‘dangerous’ nature of the cargo still stored in ship’s holds.”
Lebanon authorities decided that dangerous cargo shouldn’t be left at sea on an abandoned ship, so it was moved to the warehouse.
Owing to the risks associated with retaining the Ammonium Nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses.
It was 2014 when the ammonium nitrate would have been warehoused at the port. There it sat for six years, a giant bomb waiting to be ignited, until Tuesday. We know how the ammonium nitrate got there. It raises the question of why it stayed there.
Port officials are under house arrest during the investigation of the explosion, according to CBS News, and many are angry with powerful Lebanese officials and political factions, including the Hezbollah, for allowing this known and dangerous situation to go unchecked to a devastating effect. But there are more issues this raises than negligence by the rulers and government of Lebanon.
A major international shipping issue this spotlights is the practice of shipowners to abandon ships and crew. It turns out this is not an isolated, one-time occurrence. Most people, including international shipping professionals, don’t know this practice takes place. That’s something we’ll look into next week in Universal Cargo’s blog.