August 10, 2020 4:30:13 am
The explosion in the Beirut docks area last week has left more than 150 citizens dead, over 5,000 injured, swathes of the city levelled and the dock out of commission, which could cause a food crisis in Lebanon in the days ahead. Shock and confusion over the cause of the devastating explosion has turned into public anger, bringing on the spectre of a political problem. All this damage owed to a single explosion. The blast had produced a powerful shock wave and a mushroom cloud, and it was briefly mistaken for the detonation of a nuclear weapon. But the explosion turned out to have involved 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been improperly stored in a densely populated area.
Ammonium nitrate is best known as an agricultural fertiliser, but it is dual-use. It is also an element of binary mining explosives like ANFO and the fertiliser or nitrate bomb, an improvised device used by militant organisations ever since the Irish Republican Army deployed it in bombings in the 1970s. The same technology was also used in Oklahoma City in 1995, Bali in 2002 and Norway in 2011. After a nitrate stockpile was revealed to have caused the disaster in Beirut, other nations have woken up to the risk. In Australia, for instance, residents of Newcastle are concerned about a storage facility which holds about four times the volume of nitrate stockpiled in Beirut.
In India, there is concern over 740 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a customs warehouse in Chennai since 2015, when it was apparently imported without the required licence. The customs department has clarified that it is stored in a safe location far from human habitation, but given the hazardous nature of the chemical, which has been under the Explosives Act since 2011, it could have been disposed of. In fact, in dealing with the dispute between the importer and the customs office, a court had drawn attention to the number of accidents involving ammonium nitrate across the country, and the fact that in a span of four years, 16,000 tonnes of the chemical went missing. S Ramadoss of the PMK has suggested that the stockpile could be diverted to agricultural use, and customs officials are in a hurry to dispose of the chemical at the earliest. Better late than never. The accident in Beirut is a reminder that despite the strict regulation of hazardous substances internationally, the risks remain.
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