Beirut Blast:
The Unawaited Trauma

Socio-economic crisis is growing in Lebanon following a devastating explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020, that killed nearly 180 people and injured around 5,000 others. Until now, the cause of the blast that ignited nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port remains unclear, but related authorities are still working on the case.

Explosion Overview

There have been conflicting reports of what caused the blast. Initially the explosion was blamed on a major fire at a warehouse for firecrackers near the port. But on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that about 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material, had been stored at the port for the past six years “without preventive measures, endangering the safety of citizens.”

The disaster was preceded by a large fire at the Port of Beirut, on the city’s northern Mediterranean coast. Shortly after 18:00 (15:00 GMT), the roof of the warehouse caught alight and there was a large initial explosion, followed by a series of smaller blasts that some witnesses said sounded like fireworks going off.

About 30 seconds later, there was a colossal explosion that sent a mushroom cloud into the air and a supersonic blast wave radiating through the city.

The blast was even felt in Cyprus, around 240 kilometers (150 miles) away, and registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake.

A crater created by the explosion appeared to be roughly 124 meters (405 feet) in diameter, or well over a football field in length, according to CNN analysis of a Planet Labs, Inc. satellite image.

Blast impact on buildings and structures in Beirut. (Source: CNN, 2020)

The ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port for more than six years, since it was confiscated from a cargo ship of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate owned by a Russian businessman.

The ship docked in Beirut in 2013 after suffering technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique.

The MV Rhosus was inspected, banned from leaving and was shortly afterwards abandoned by its owners. Its cargo was reportedly transferred to Warehouse 12 following a court order, and should have been disposed of or resold.

The MV Rhosus in Beirut port (Source: Google Images, 2020)

The chemical has caused serious industrial disasters in the past. In 1921, an explosion at an ammonium nitrate factory in Oppau, Germany, killed 561 people and could be heard hundreds of kilometers away. And in 2015, the detonation of around 800 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port of Tianjin, China, killed 173 people.

Here are some similar Ammonium Nitrate explosions happened in the past:

Similar explosions in history
Similar explosions in history (Source: Nature, 2020)

AMMONIUM NITRATE (AN) HAZARDS

“AN” DESCRIPTION

Ammonium nitrate has different forms depending upon its use. Ammonium nitrate in crystalline form, porous prills / granules or as saturated aqueous solution is mainly used for the production of industrial explosives. Ammonium Nitrate Based Fertilizers are uniform mixtures in prill or granular form containing ammonium nitrate as the main ingredient.

Ammonium Nitrate is classified as an explosive and assigned to Class 1 of the UN classification system. Experts say that ammonium nitrate is relatively safe when stored properly. However, if you have a large amount of material lying around for a long time it begins to decay.
The real risk is that over time it will absorb little bits of moisture and it eventually turns into an enormous rock. This makes it more dangerous because if a fire, heat, or pressure reaches it, the chemical reaction will be much more intense leading to even  explosion. When ammonium nitrate explodes, it can release toxic gases including nitrogen oxides and ammonia gas. The orange plume is caused by the nitrogen dioxide, which is often associated with air pollution.

“AN” SPECIFICITIES

Ammonium nitrate is a stable compound and generally is difficult to explode when it is in solid or molten form or in solution. However, ammonium nitrate may explode when it is exposed to strong shock or to high temperature under confinement.
The presence of certain contaminants may increase the explosion hazard of ammonium nitrate. While certain inorganic contaminants, including chlorides and some metals, such as chromium, copper, cobalt, and nickel may sensitize ammonium nitrate, organic impurities increase the energy of ammonium nitrate explosions. As ammonium nitrate solution becomes more acidic, its stability decreases, and it may be more likely to explode.

In a large quantity of ammonium nitrate, localized areas of high temperature may be sufficiently confined by the total quantity to initiate an explosion. The explosion of a small quantity of ammonium nitrate in a confined space (e.g., a pipe) may initiate the explosion of larger quantities (e.g., in an associated vessel).
Low density areas, such as bubbles, in molten ammonium nitrate or solutions, also may increase the possibility of an explosion and enhance the propagation of an explosion. Ammonium nitrate by itself does not burn, but in contact with other combustible materials, it increases the fire hazard. It can support and intensify a fire even in the absence of air. Fires involving ammonium nitrate can release toxic nitrogen oxides and ammonia. A fire involving ammonium nitrate in an enclosed space could lead to an explosion.

 MAIN HAZARDS ASSOCIATED WITH AMMONIUM NITRATE “AN”

  1. Fire

Ammonium nitrate itself does not burn. Being an oxidizing agent, it can facilitate the initiation of a fire and intensify fires in combustible materials. Hot AN solution can initiate a fire in fags, wooden articles etc., on coming into contact with them. Similarly, fertilizer products or dust contaminated with oil or other combustible materials can also start fires when left on hot surfaces.

Fires involving AN cannot be extinguished by the prevention of air ingress because of the provision of oxygen from the AN.

Firefighting measures

Fire may be caused by non-compliance with the instructions for use or not following the operating instructions (negligence, carelessness, lack of knowledge) (HIP-Azotara, 2015). In case ammonium nitrate is caught by fire, plenty of water must be used and call the fire brigade. Water is the only known satisfactory extinguishing agent for an ammonium nitrate fire (Canadian Legal Information Institute, 2015). As an ammonium nitrate fire progresses, large quantities of very toxic gases are evolved.

Firefighters must be protected by wearing suitable protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus. They must also be trained for carrying and properly using the equipment (HIP-Azotara, 2015).

If the initial fire is not extinguished but progresses, the next step is the evacuation of personnel in the safety distances. There is no possibility either method to predict at what point will explosion occur, but in almost all the explosions of ammonium nitrate affected by the fire there was always enough time for the evacuation (Kričak et al. 2010).

  1. Decomposition

When pure ammonium nitrate is heated, a slow dissociation to nitric acid and ammonia becomes noticeable at a relatively low temperature, the reaction absorbing heat. At about 93ºC, the solid ammonium nitrate begins to sublime and the rate of sublimation increases until the melting point of 169ºC is reached. The molten material vaporizes at a rate as the temperature is raised (Compressed Gas Association, 1963).

The release of toxic fumes is one of the main hazards associated with the decomposition of AN. Decomposition may produce nitrogen oxides (NO, NO2, …), ammonia and amines (HIP-Azotara, 2015). Pure solid ammonium nitrate does not heat spontaneously.

  1. Explosion

According to EFMA (European Fertilizer Manufacturers¢ Association, 2000), AN is especially difficult to detonate and neither flame, spark nor friction is known to cause detonation. Shock initiation in solid prilled AN needs a fairly substantial stimulus.

Strongly acidic conditions and the presence of contaminants should be avoided to counter the explosion hazard in AN solutions. Explosions can occur when ammonium nitrate is heated under confinement in pumps (European Fertilizer Manufacturers¢ Association, 2000).

A DAMAGEFUL EXPLOSION

Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud told reporters that the explosion had resulted in an estimated three to five billion US dollars’ worth of damage. NNA, Lebanon’s state-run media, reported that 90% of hotels in the Lebanese capital had been damaged.

The port and its surroundings: before and after (Source: CNN, 2020)

The explosion tore through the city, flipping cars, shattering glass and causing some homes to crumble. Damaged buildings include the headquarters of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and CNN’s bureau in downtown Beirut. Homes as far as 10 kilometers (6 miles) away were damaged, according to witnesses.

Explosion echoes kilometers away (Source: CNN, 2020)
Explosion echoes kilometers away (Source: CNN, 2020)

The Reuters news agency reported that 85% of the grain reserves are stored in this port, which manages more than 50% of the country’s food imports.

The main grain elevator – managed by the Ministry of Economy and Trade – was transformed into rubble and dust after the explosion. The US Department of Agriculture has pointed out – according to the NYT – that about 80% of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, so the country could have lost about 85% of its stocks, as they are stored in the destroyed silos.

Despite this, the Minister of Economy and Trade, who was interviewed by the country’s national news agency, admitted that although the wheat stored in the port has been contaminated, Lebanon has sufficient stocks for its immediate needs.

INVOLVED PARTIES

President Aoun promised a transparent investigation into the blast and at least 20 people have been arrested so far.

In our memos 19320/2014 dated 5/12/2014 and 5/6/2015 […] we requested that your honor order the responsible Port Authorities to re-export Ammonium Nitrate that was taken off the Rhosus ship and placed in Customs hangar number 12 in Beirut port,” Daher wrote in 2017.

At points, he even offered to sell the dangerous cargo to the Lebanese army, according to the court documents, but to no avail.

Daher confirmed to CNN earlier on Wednesday that his office sent “a total of six letters to the legal authorities” but that the authorities never responded to any of their letters.

“The Port Authority should not have allowed the ship to offload the chemicals into the port,” he said. “The chemicals were originally going to Mozambique, not Lebanon.”

On Wednesday, the General Director of Beirut Port Hassan Kraytem told local television channel OTV: “We stored the material in warehouse number 12 at Beirut port in accordance with a court order. We knew that they were dangerous materials, but not to that extent.”

Kraytem too, said that the issue of removing the explosive material had been brought up by State Security and Customs — but that the issue had not been “resolved.”

“Customs and State Security sent letters [to the authorities] asking to remove or re-export the explosive materials six years ago, and we have been waiting since then for this issue to be resolved, but to no avail,” Kraytem said.

Maintenance was conducted on the warehouse door just hours before the blast on Tuesday, he added. “We were asked to fix a door of the warehouse by State Security and we did that at noon, but what occurred in the afternoon I have no idea,” he said.

Days ago, a team of FBI investigators arrived in Lebanon to take part in the investigation into Beirut’s explosion, a senior US official has said, after visiting the location of the blast.

France is also taking part in the Lebanese-led investigation.

INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT TO LEBANON 

Several non-state entities are accepting donations from individuals to help the Lebanese people recover, including the Lebanese Red Cross and Impact Lebanon. Adding to that, several countries are providing aid to Beirut following the tragedy:

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon, and his government sent rescue workers, medical equipment and a mobile clinic there today.

Egypt set up a field hospital in Beirut with the help of its embassy there.

Turkey dispatched emergency and medical workers to Lebanon, along with medical and emergency supplies. The country is also working to set up a field hospital there, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Emergency medical aid from Kuwait arrived in the Lebanese capital on Wednesday morning, as the Lebanese Red Cross said more than 4,000 people were being treated for injuries after the explosion sent glass shards and debris flying.

The United States is sending to Lebanon three C-17 aircraft shipments of relief aid, filled with food, water and medical supplies.

The United Nations launched a $565m (£432m) appeal for Lebanon with immediate humanitarian assistance and initial recovery efforts.

The Tunisian administration sent two military planes carrying food, drugs and medical supplies to Lebanon.

Tunisian President Kais Saied authorized the sending of two aid planes to Lebanon and to bring back 100 injured Lebanese to be treated at hospitals in Tunisia.

The United Arab Emirates sent a plane carrying 30 tons of humanitarian and medical aid to Lebanon.

The situation NOW

The post-revolution (late 2019) remnants were severe enough on Lebanon, and have led to a critical economic situation; when the currency began to lose its value against the dollar; since then, food prices have gone up and about one out of three people in the country are unemployed. As if the crisis Lebanon was facing, was not enough, the explosion made the situation even worse and maybe more complicated.

“This is a crisis layered upon multiple crises — an economic crisis, a political crisis, a health crisis,” says Charlotte Karam, a social scientist at the American University of Beirut,” We need to work together to rebuild Lebanon.”

BY THE END

There is an urgent need for port storage facilities of hazardous substances to keep up with the rapid growth in global trade. Given their large capacities and the range of potentially hazardous substances they contain, such warehouses are governed by special safety regulations, particularly as regards the distances to be maintained and the loss prevention measures required in respect of both structural and plant engineering measures.

According to Munich RE, provided that such measures are enforced, they can prevent losses and limit the magnitude of a loss. Information and tracking systems help to make movements of hazardous substances in port areas more transparent and permit identification of dangerous levels or cases of combined storage.

In addition, such systems also make it possible to check and verify compliance with the required marking and approved storage quantities. In an emergency, it is essential to have fast access to data on all relevant hazardous substances (for instance in material safety data sheets) to ensure that emergency services have all the information they need regarding the substances’ location, type and quantity, as well as on the safety precautions taken to protect people and the environment.

Suitable emergency and business continuity plans permitting a swift resumption of operations are just as important as compliance with the regulations on dangerous goods. The decisive factor is to develop scenarios which also take account of exposure to multiple risks, such as fire/ explosion, natural hazards, terrorist attacks and cyber risks.

Mehdi CHAKROUN
Partner
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