Aerial of Kooragang Island. Image via Flickr user Tim J Keegan, CC licence 2.0
As Lebanon reels in the aftermath of a catastrophic ammonium nitrate explosion, residents in the Australian port city of Newcastle are calling for their own stockpile of the chemical—four times the size of that which triggered the Beirut blast—to be moved away from the CBD and surrounding suburbs.
At least 100 people have been confirmed dead, nearly 4,000 are injured, and as many as 300,000 have lost their homes as a result of the explosion in the Lebanese capital, which officials have linked to a massive stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port for years.
Orica’s Kooragang Island plant in the Port of Newcastle currently stores between 6,000 and 12,000 tons of the stuff—up to four times the amount that wreaked citywide devastation on Beirut. It’s also located within 800 metres of residential housing and less than three kilometres from the city’s CBD.
“It’s a totally inappropriate place to have such a dangerous material produced and stored, and it’s something we’ve been complaining about for many, many years,” Keith Craig, one of 300 residents who has long called for the Orica plant to be either relocated or have its stockpiles drastically reduced, told the ABC. “Many people would be killed and injured if we had an accident at Orica.”
Explosives expert Tony Richards echoed those concerns, telling Fairfax: “if that went off, people in Sydney would say ‘what the hell was that?’ And the answer would be: ‘it used to be Newcastle’.”
In response, Orica—one of the world’s largest providers of commercial explosives and blasting systems—insisted there was no need to worry about their mass stockpile of ammonium nitrate. In a statement, the multinational corporation said that while thousands of tons of the highly explosive chemical is indeed stored at the plant on any given day, there are stringent practices in place to ensure its safe storage and handling.
“Ammonium nitrate storage areas are fire resistant and built exclusively from non-flammable materials,” they said. “There are no flammable sources within designated exclusion zones around these areas.”
It is believed that the Beirut blast was caused by a fire in a nearby port that spread to the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was being stored. It is the latest in a number of similar explosions to have occurred over the past 10 years—including one incident in Texas that killed 15 people and destroyed an estimated 150 buildings in 2013, and another in France that killed 29 people in 2001. About 300 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored at both facilities.
It’s worth noting that plants used in the production and storage of ammonium nitrate and other explosive chemicals are not uncommon, and there are presumably thousands of facilities just like the ones in Beirut, Texas, and Paris all over the world. Ammonium nitrate is one of the world’s most widely used fertilisers, and in order for there to be a detonation there has to be a smaller shock, ie a firework explosion, to trigger it.
But Priyan Mendis, a professor of engineering and explosion expert from the University of Melbourne, pointed out that although the risk of an explosion at the Newcastle plant is low, it cannot be ruled out—and Orica is thus under an obligation to reassess its operations.
“I can understand the concerns of the residents in Newcastle, of course there is a risk,” he told the ABC. “The ammonium nitrate has to be triggered, something like a fire has to happen. But given the scale of the event in Lebanon I think Orica needs to review things and reassess what would happen here.”
Orica is licensed to produce up to 385,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate a year, most of which is bought and used as an explosive by the mining industry.
In 2014 another mining and explosives chemicals manufacturer, Incitec Pivot, won approval for its own storage facility on the Port of Newcastle’s Kooragang Island, which would have the capacity for 30,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate—more than ten times the amount that blew up in Beirut. It has not yet built the facility.
Following the Beirut explosion, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab condemned the failure to safeguard the dangerous stockpile that caused the blast as unacceptable, and promised harsh consequences for those found responsible.
“It is unacceptable that a shipment of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate has been present for six years in a warehouse, without taking preventive measures,” he said. A probe has been launched, with the investigating committee due to refer its findings to the judiciary within five days.
Diab further declared three days of national mourning, and appealed for international assistance.
“We are witnessing a real catastrophe,” he said in a televised address. “I make an urgent appeal to friendly and brotherly countries… to stand by Lebanon and to help us heal our deep wounds.”
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