The tragedy at Beirut on August 4 highlights what happens when dangerous chemicals are not stored with care. The explosion tore through the city, registering a force as strong as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake. Residents claimed that the scenes looked “like an apocalypse” and that the port was “totally destroyed.”
This was not the first time such an incident occurred in a port. On August 12, 2015, a series of explosions killed 173 people and injured hundreds of others at a container storage station at the Port of Tianjin. The first two explosions occurred within 30 seconds of each other at the facility, which was located in the Binhai New Area of Tianjin, China. Fires caused by the initial explosions continued to burn uncontrolled throughout the weekend, resulting in eight additional explosions on August 15. Of the 173 fatalities, 104 were firefighters.
An investigation concluded in February 2016 that an overheated container of dry nitrocellulose was the cause of the initial explosion. The subsequent explosions likely involved 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, along with dozens of other compounds.
In the aftermath of the Tianjin incident in 2014, Chinese authorities handed jail sentences to 49 government officials, warehouse executives and staff for circumventing safety rules and creating the conditions for the disaster.
An earlier incident involving dangerous chemicals occurred on April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City, Texas, at Galveston Bay. It was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in U.S. history. At mid-morning, a fire started on board the French vessel SS Grandcamp and detonated her cargo of about 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. This started a chain reaction of fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities, ultimately killing at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department.
Investigations revealed that the ammonium nitrate cargo was manufactured in Nebraska and Iowa and shipped to Texas City by rail before being loaded onto the Grandcamp. It was manufactured in a patented process, mixed with clay, petrolatum, rosin and paraffin wax to avoid moisture caking. It was packaged in paper sacks, then transported and stored at higher temperatures that increased its chemical activity. Longshoremen reported the bags were warm to the touch before loading.
On April 16, 1947, around 8:00 a.m., smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the Grandcamp while she was still moored. Over the next hour, attempts to extinguish the fire or bring it under control failed, as a red glow returned after each effort to douse the fire. The disaster drew the first class-action lawsuit against the United States government, on behalf of 8,485 victims, under the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act.
The International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (or IMDG Code) first published in 1965 is an International Maritime Organisation code which prescribes guidelines for the safe preparation, storage, and handling of transportation and shipment of dangerous goods or hazardous materials. The IMDG Code divides dangerous goods into nine classes, with different attributes and labelling, and each will have their unique UN Number. Both crew and shore-based personnel are required to undergo training to handle dangerous goods. The shipper or forwarder has to prepare Material Safety Data Sheets relating to the attributes of the dangerous goods.
In the Malaysian Admiralty Court case of the Ing Hua Fu, the forwarder declared the classes and UN numbers of the dangerous chemicals to the load port authorities without any appreciation of the significance. He did not have a copy of the IMDG Code, and he simply forwarded the information given by the shipper. The forwarder declared the same chemicals to the shipping agent for purposes of the carriage and preparation of the bill of lading as innocuous agrochemicals.
The chemicals which were stowed on deck caught fire and exploded when the vessel arrived at the subsequent port, sinking the vessel within 20 minutes. The court held that the forwarder’s and shipper’s failure to declare was a negligent act which contributed and caused the damage to the vessel.
In the incident at Port of Beirut, the blast was likely caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate which had been stored at the dock since it was confiscated from the cargo ship MV Rhosus in 2014, according to Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi. Ammonium nitrate is used both in agricultural fertilizer and in high-grade explosives.
All three of these tragedies involved the same chemical (either by itself or in combination with other compounds). On its own ammonium nitrate is not considered dangerous, but can be lethal under certain conditions – and needs to be treated with care to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
As of August 6, the Beirut incident has left 135 dead, thousands injured and 300,000 homeless. Specialists at the University of Sheffield in the UK estimate that the blast had about one-tenth of the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War Two and was "unquestionably one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history.”
The Lebanese Supreme Defence Council has vowed that those found responsible will face the "maximum punishment" possible. Economy Minister Raoul Nehme told the BBC: "I think it is incompetence and really bad management and there are a lot of responsibilities from management and probably previous governments. We do not intend after such an explosion to stay silent on who is responsible for what."
All port officials "who have handled the affairs of storing the ammonium nitrate, guarding it and handling its paperwork" are subject to house arrest, according to Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad.
Philip Teoh is a dual qualified Singapore and Malaysian lawyer of 30 years standing and maritime arbitrator. He is the partner heading the shipping, international trade, insurance, oil & gas and arbitration practice in Azmi & Associates, one of the largest Malaysian law firms. He is a panel arbitrator with LMAA, SCMA, EMAC, LCIA, ICC, AIAC,KCAB,CAAI and other centers.
This article was previously published in Maritime Executive.