The explosion in Beirut on Tuesday (August 4) was a violent demonstration of the importance of hazardous cargo logistics. The huge detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 135 people and has destroyed part of the city of Beirut.

What appears to have happened is that a cargo of ammonium nitrate was abandoned in a conventional warehouse. Pictures purporting to be of the consignment show it stored in bags in a crude bulk store. It is reported to have been kept there since 2014, left for some reason by a Russian businessman after being unloaded from a vessel, which also appears to have been abandoned.

Ammonium nitrate is a common and very useful chemical. Its primary use is in agriculture where is it used as a fertilizer. However, another important use is as an explosive and it is particularly used in mining. The latter generally uses ammonium nitrate with a distinct and less stable crystal structure, however, the agricultural grade product can also be made to detonate in the right circumstances. Although it is classified as hazardous cargo, its handling requirements are not demanding. Essentially it just needs to be isolated from sources of fire and intense heat. Indeed, one of the attractions of using ammonium nitrate as an explosive is its predictability.

Beirut is not a major port and has suffered from the political and economic instability in Lebanon. That such cargo should explode like this is a disturbing indicator of the state of the port and it should not be assumed that other ports handling bulk ammonium nitrate shipments are under the threat of such explosions. Yet this should not lead to complacency.

The threat to larger ports may be greater. The volumes of hazardous materials passing through chemical, bulk and even container terminals are far higher and whilst the quality of the infrastructure may be better, this may not necessarily compensate for the higher level of activity. An example of what can happen is an explosion at the generally large and modern port of Tianjin in 2015 which was caused by a badly managed tank container storage facility.

Major ports, shipping and other logistics assets face the constant threat of accidents from the mishandling of hazardous cargo. It is dangerous to assume that such threats are remote or of minor significance.

Source: Transport Intelligence, August 6, 2020

Author: Thomas Cullen

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