Beirut Blast and The Regulations Regarding The Operation of Ammonium Nitrate

Beirut Blast and The Regulations Regarding The Operation of Ammonium Nitrate

Author: Sharyu Rumde, School of Law, University of Mumbai

Abstract

The Beirut Explosion is one of the largest blasts the world has seen in recent times. The country of Lebanon has taken a massive hit, but the dreadful history behind the cause of explosion showcases the dark side of Lebanese government. The negligence shown by the government has ended up causing this disaster, a disaster which could have been easily prevented. This article focuses on the cause of the problem and highlights how necessary protocols were grossly violated.

Introduction

On the tragic day of August 04, 2020, the city of Beirut was shook to the core. A large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at a warehouse in the capital city of Lebanon exploded causing a blast of enormous nature. The energy released due to the blast was so powerful that it was felt in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Israel, Syria and even parts of Europe. The explosion ended up killing almost 200 people, injuring around 6000 people and it is estimated that thousands of people have now become homeless.

The devastation caused by the blast has worsened the ongoing crisis of Lebanon. The nation has been in a financial crisis since the year 2019, with the addition of CoViD pandemic, the country’s economy is collapsing rapidly. With the recent blast, the country has taken a fatal blow and is no state to be recovered.

The current plight of Lebanon isn’t unexpected, the country’s situation was a disaster in the making. The mismanagement and corruption of the government over the years has ended up deteriorating this nation, the misconduct shown by the officials with regards to this blast is truly frightening. The situation is so alarming that one can only hope for a miracle for the betterment of this nation.    

What triggered the Explosion?

The Beirut explosion is one of the largest the world has seen in recent years. The blast occurred when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded from the city’s port with such a magnitude that it was heard 200 kilometers away in Cyprus. The city itself took an immense toll as many buildings were damaged and innocent lives lost. The casualties and the effect of the explosion has made people question about the dangerous nature of ammonium nitrate.

What is ammonium nitrate and how does it explode?

Ammonium Nitrate is a chemical compound consisting of ammonia and nitric acid, it is widely used in fertilizers and is also the main component in many types of mining explosives. The chemical does not burn on its own, instead, it acts as a source of oxygen that can accelerate the burning of other materials. So, in order to decompose on its own and release gases that can cause an explosion, the chemical needs to be in proximity of high temperature, like intense fire.[1]

For the occurrence of such a massive blast, fire is a necessary component. As soon as the news spread out, videos started circulating on social media showing white smoke emerging from a warehouse which was nearby to the ammonium nitrate storage. The roof of the warehouse from where the smoke emerged was soon caught on fire which resulted in an initial explosion followed by smaller blasts. The explosion which trembled the city took place few seconds after the smaller blasts, it ended up destroying the dock, creating a crater and demolishing the warehouses. It is estimated that the explosion was about 10 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bombing.[2]

The frequency of the blast has shocked people all around the world. Though it is inferred that the explosion was a result of fire burning in close proximity of ammonium nitrate, what caused the fire still remains a mystery. The government has appointed an investigation team to find out the necessary details. However, the question arises about the huge quantity of ammonium nitrate. It has been discovered that the storage wasn’t a public or private property, instead, it was acquired by the government. The history behind this acquisition is peculiar, but the irresponsibility shown by the government in dealing with this cargo is where things went wrong for this country.

Backstory of the cargo of Ammonium Nitrate

In the year 2013, MV Rhosus, a cargo ship from Moldova started its journey from Georgia carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be delivered at Mozambique to a factory manufacturing explosives for civilian use. The ship belonged to a Russian businessman who was responsible to transport the cargo. However, during a stopover in Greece, it is speculated that the owner lacked funds for the journey through Suez Canal so the crew was asked to make their way to Beirut where the owner was going to receive additional fund to transport extra cargo. By the time the ship reached Beirut, it needed maintenance, so the crew had to pull up for the time being.

During their stay, the Lebanese port authority found the ship’s documents to be unorderly. Three arrest orders were issued against the ship. At the same time, the owner dropped off the radar, abandoning the ship and its crew to their own fate. Due to immigration restrictions they were held in the city. The officials allowed six people to leave the country but four of the crew members were detained. The captain of the ship decided to sell off some ship fuels to hire a lawyer to defend their cause. Their case was applied to the Judge “Of Urgent Matters” on compassionate grounds and was argued on the breach of the right to personal freedom which is a guaranteed right under the Constitution of Lebanon and the International Convention of Human Rights and Personal Freedoms. The imminent danger of being in the same vicinity as the explosive chemical was highlighted as well. The application was accepted and an order was issued for the crew to return back home. The order established the principle that ‘personal freedoms ought to be protected regardless of any administrative considerations and that the Judge “Of Urgent Matters” can intervene to ensure protection of these rights.’ The cargo was ordered to be transferred to the port’s warehouse.[3] 

Ever since the transfer of cargo, the port officials had been alerting the authorities about the danger of storing a highly explosive product in such high quantity, applications were sent to the courts, repeated warnings were issued, but to no avail. The port authorities had even suggested measures to sell off the cargo for which they were informed that an auction would be held, but the government or judiciary never acted on it. Six months before the blast, a team of inspectors had warned the government about the danger but even then the officials failed to act.[4]

Despite the repeated warnings and reminders, the cargo was never transferred or sold off. This blast wasn’t an unnatural accident, rather it was a ticking bomb waiting for its time to explode. The officials had many chances to prevent this catastrophic event but their sheer incompetence and negligence ended up destroying the city. The measures suggested by the port officials should have been considered and acted upon in due time.

Regulations for storing chemicals

Every country has their own set of rules and regulations which are to be strictly followed while dealing with chemicals as they have a tendency of turning into harmful substances if not handled with care. Likewise, Lebanese government had the duty to store the cargo as per those regulations and adhere to the necessary safety measures, but their dereliction of duty despite the repeated warnings has ended up raising many questions.

Ammonium Nitrate is an explosive substance, it can’t be stored at any convenient place. The place of storage, the conditions in which it has to be stored and the operation of handling should be assessed carefully before stocking it. To better understand the procedure, we can refer to an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety. It is published by the International Labour Office, keeping into account the procedures laid down in the International Labour Organisation Code of Practice. The International Labour Organisation is a United Nations agency whose objective is to prescribe the necessary guidelines to help assist the nations who are members of the esteemed organization.

Chapter 61 of the excerpt deals with the usage, storage and transportation of chemicals by explaining various procedures such as classification, record keeping, training, functioning of the chemicals, etc.[5] The chapter emphasizes on a proper procedure to be followed while keeping in mind the safety of the workers. While discussing many such measures, the chapter talks about various harmful substances and how they should be dealt with, one such being Explosive substances. The section gives a brief account about what constitutes as an explosive substance and how to handle them, however, emphasis can be led on two specific lines which are very relevant with the current case.

  • The storage places should be situated far away from other buildings and structures so as to minimize damage in case of an explosion.
  • No store should be near a building containing oil, grease, waste combustible material or flammable material, open fire or flame.

The warehouse of the port was never a safe place to store the cargo of ammonium nitrate as it was very close to the city, a secluded place far away from the proximity of the city would have been a better option. The provision has specifically mentioned this measure to help minimize damage. It is evident that the danger of explosive substances was no mere precaution, but rather an important threat. On the other hand, the city’s port is said to be the busiest harbor of the country as majority of the trades are being carried out through this port. The second provision mentions substances such as oil, grease, combustible materials which are usually transported through a port, thus being in close parameters of the warehouse. These substances are flammable in nature, storing a cargo of ammonium nitrate in a place where they it was vulnerable to explosion is again an alarming cry as to how life threatening the situation was.

The Lebanese government must surely have their own laws for handling such substances, yet they failed to properly handle the storage. This grave situation is no accident, in fact it is a serious mishandling of law and it’s startling to see that even the judiciary failed to take proper actions. Both the government and the judiciary were aware of the situation, yet their negligence and lack of conduct towards the whole crisis is frightening to say the least.

Aftermath

This isn’t the first time that ammonium nitrate has created an explosion of this nature. The world has witnessed many explosions caused by ammonium nitrate, be it the Great Explosion of the United Kingdom killing 115 people, the explosion at BASF plant in Oppau, Germany killing 561 people, the Texas City disaster where 581 individuals lost their lives or the most recent one in Tianjin, China which ended up killing 173 people.[6] If warnings issued by the port officials and inspectors weren’t enough, the government could have simply studied this data. The lack of responsibility on their behalf has now brought them on the world’s radar. The government’s actions are being criticized by world leaders and people alike. The Prime Minister and the Environment Minister have stepped down from their posts, their resignation is followed by many cabinet ministers. The citizens have completely lost faith in their government. The protesters are out on the streets demanding justice.

The country is already bankrupt, it has been stated that there isn’t enough food for citizens as the port used to stock supplies. The malicious games of the government have ended up endangering the lives of these innocent citizens. A host of nations have pledged nearly $300m in humanitarian assistance to Lebanon which will be routed through the United Nations and provided directly to the people.[7]

Ever since the 1975-1990 Civil War, the citizens have not been satisfied with their government, their corruption over the years has affected the country’s economy to a grave extent, currently the country is in billion dollars debt and with the recent explosion, the country is financially in crumbles. Though the explosion made people aware about Lebanon’s condition on a global level, how much aid can be provided to the citizens remains unknown. Though the ministers have resigned from their posts, an empty cabinet is not a viable solution. Someone has to take a stand to handle this crisis.

Conclusion

The Beirut Explosion is one of the scariest accidents of human history. One may say that the world has witnessed many greater deeds of monstrosity and while I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, we can’t turn a blind eye towards this explosion. Many rumors are being circulated that the accident was caused by an external organization, but the root cause still remains the carelessness of the government.

The government’s utmost duty is the betterment of its people. The world has its fair share of corrupt government officials, Lebanon isn’t the only sorry state but in this case, their recklessness has ended up crippling the nation. The Right to Life of these people has been compromised by their very own government. Their mismanagement in handling such a dangerous chemical shouldn’t go unnoticed, strict legal actions need to be taken against each and every officer who was aware about the situation.

The Beirut Explosion is gut-wrenching tragedy. The lives lost to it and the sufferings people have to endure could have been avoided. This explosion has raised a warning call for all the nations. It has made people aware about the seriousness of dealing with harmful substances. The situation has also highlighted the need for stringent regulations. The nations should pledge to amend or make stricter laws with regards to chemicals. We are living in the 21st century, we have means and resources to avoid such disasters. The Beirut Explosion has been one of a kind and it should remain so, this misfortune should not be repeated. We should remember the people of Beirut and vow for a better future. We should also remember the corrupt officials and make sure that such people are held accountable for their actions.


[1]What Is Ammonium Nitrate, the Chemical That Exploded in Beirut?, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-ammonium-nitrate-the-chemical-that-exploded-in-beirut/

[2]Beirut explosion: What we know so far, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53668493

[3]The Arrest news, Ship Arrested, https://shiparrested.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/The-Arrest-News-11th-issue.pdf#page=3

[4]The strange history of the chemical cargo that caused the Beirut blast, France 24, https://www.france24.com/en/20200807-the-strange-history-of-the-cargo-that-caused-the-beirut-blast

[5]Chapter 61 – Using, Storing and Transporting Chemicals, Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, http://www.ilocis.org/documents/chpt61e.htm

[6]Ammonium Nitrate Disaster Timeline, Responsible Packaging Management Association of Southern Africa, https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.saiosh.co.za/resource/resmgr/docs/2020/ammonium_nitrate_distasters_.pdf

[7]Endemic corruption caused Beirut blast, says Diab: Live updates, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/beirut-police-fire-tear-gas-protesters-regroup-live-updates-200810010528285.html 

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