The tragedy in Beirut on August 4 serves as a stark reminder of what can happen when hazardous materials are not stored with care.
The explosion in the Beirut port area was reportedly caused by 2,750 tonnes of confiscated ammonium nitrate that had been stored at a port warehouse for seven years. The death toll has risen to nearly 200, as the blast destroyed a swathe of the city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.
The topic of accumulation risk has also been thrown into stark perspective; ports, warehouses and cargo storages spaces are among the locations with the greatest accumulation potential.
Just five years ago this issue hit the headlines in the wake of the Tianjin disaster – a series of explosions that killed 173 people at a container storage station at the port of Tianjin, China. An investigation found that an overheated container of dry nitrocellulose was the cause of the initial explosion. Subsequent explosions likely involved ammonium nitrate and sodium cyanide.
Insured losses from the Beirut port disaster are likely to total around USD3 billion – a similar amount to those associated to the Tianjin explosions. However, economic losses, including uninsured assets, could total around USD15 billion.
In the aftermath of the Tianjin incident, 49 government officials, warehouse executives and staff received prison sentences for circumventing safety rules. So far, Lebanese authorities have taken into custody 16 individuals as part of an investigation into the explosion and the government has resigned amid widespread anger over the blast.
With regard to cargo traffic, ships are being diverted to the port of Tripoli. Given the scale of devastation that the explosion has caused, it will be some time before any normality returns to the city.
It is hoped that in the longer term, this incident will serve as a wake up call of what can happen when handling hazardous materials, shining an important light on misdeclared cargoes and robust port storage procedures.