The risks of storing 2,700-tones of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut were ignored as many as five times over a period of six years by Lebanese officials, which ultimately caused an unprecedented explosion in the capital.
The crystalline substance was stored for more than six-years without proper safety precautions in place, with reports stating that the Lebanese judiciary was notified of the potentially dangerous stash of chemicals “at least five times,” who failed to act on the request.
Labelling the decision “unacceptable”, President Michel Aoun said officials were wrong to allow the storage of a potentially explosive chemical like ammonium nitrate since 2014, which is now understood to be the catalyst for the explosion that has killed anywhere between 74-130 people.
“It isn’t acceptable that a shipment of ammonium nitrate – estimated to be 2,750 tons – was in a depot for the past six years without precautionary measures being taken.” – Lebanon Prime Minister, Hassan Diab
Ammonium nitrate is a commonly used ingredient in fertilisers, which were reportedly being stored close to a factory containing fireworks. It is also a commonly-used chemical in homemade explosive devices.
According to a report from France 24, “a security source and local media said it was started by welding work being carried out on a hole in the warehouse.”
Lebanon’s national news agency NNA is reporting that a warehouse containing fireworks caught fire, which caused nearby warehouse 12 – housing the ammonium nitrate – to explode. These claims have been backed up by the fact that preceding the explosion, there is a smaller-sized fire with flashes, potentially from fireworks.
While the results of an official investigation are yet to be released, government officials have confirmed that the 2,700-tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut was the most likely cause for the accident that has injured more than 4,000.
Seemingly no occupational health and safety or effective risk management system was in place for the six-years that the fertilizer was being stored at the Port of Beirut.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab has said that those responsible for the mismanagement of the “dangerous warehouse” should be held to account, adding that “those responsible will pay the price.”
“I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it because it isn’t acceptable that a shipment of ammonium nitrate – estimated to be 2,750 tons – was in a depot for the past six years without precautionary measures being taken,” Diab concluded.
Customs chief Badri Daher has said that Mohammad el Mawla, Beirut’s Harbor Master was the man responsible for allowing the chemicals to be stored for such a long time without proper risk management systems in place.
“He allowed it to dock at the end of 2013, beginning of 2014. Why did he allow it to enter, and why was it allowed to unload in Warehouse 12?” Daher told Al Arabiya English.
Daher says that a total of five official complaints were sent to judges in Lebanon describing the dangers associated with storing ammonium nitrate for long periods. “They [judges] never responded and this is not even my prerogative to interfere in,” he said.
Daher has previously told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) that the Customs department never received permission to export the ammonium nitrate from the Port of Beirut.
He told reporters that questions should be referred to the Public Works and Transportation Ministry who directly manages the port’s employees and management teams.