Smoke above the port of Beirut shortly after the explosions, August 4, 2020. - Hassan Ammar / AP / SIPA
How could such a tragedy happen in the heart of the Lebanese capital? After the two gigantic explosions which took place on Tuesday, the first elements of the investigation show that they were caused by the combustion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored in the warehouse of the port of Beirut. This substance is used as the basis of many nitrogenous fertilizers in the form of granules. It caused several industrial accidents including the explosion of the AZF factory in Toulouse in 2001.
"It is unacceptable that a cargo of ammonium nitrate, estimated at 2,750 tonnes, has been present for six years in a warehouse, without precautionary measures", denounced Prime Minister Hassan Diab. In front of the Superior Defense Council which held an emergency meeting. "This is unacceptable and we cannot be silent on this issue," he added, according to remarks reported by a spokesperson at a press conference. "We will not know any rest until we find the person responsible for what happened to be held to account," the Prime Minister promised.
"Very difficult to burn it"
Ammonium nitrates, which come in the form of white salt, are made up of fertilizers called ammonitrates, which farmers buy in large bags or in bulk. They are not combustible products: they are oxidizers, that is, they allow the combustion of another substance already on fire. "It's very difficult to burn it," Jimmie Oxley, professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, who herself has worked on the combustion of ammonium nitrate, told AFP. "It's not easy to detonate it."
Detonation is only possible with contamination by an incompatible substance or an intense source of heat. And the storage must therefore follow rules to isolate ammonium nitrate from flammable liquids (gasoline, oils, etc.), corrosive liquids, flammable solids or even substances that give off significant heat, among others prohibited, according to a technical sheet from the French Ministry of Agriculture.
300 tonnes in Toulouse in 2001
Many tragedies around the world, accidental and criminal, have as their source ammonium nitrate. One of the very first accidents killed 561 in 1921 in Oppau, Germany, in a BASF factory. In 1947, Brest was shaken by the explosion of the Norwegian freighter Ocean Liberty which was carrying the substance.
In France too, stacked in bulk in a hangar of the AZF chemical plant, in the southern suburbs of Toulouse, some 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrates suddenly exploded and caused a wind of death and desolation to blow over the fourth city of France September 21, 2001: 31 people died, and the explosion was heard 80 km around. In the United States, a terrible explosion at the West Fertilizer fertilizer plant in West Texas killed 15 people in 2013. A stockpile of ammonium nitrates exploded in an arson attack; the absence of storage standards had been questioned by the investigators.
The Lebanese Supreme Defense Council on Tuesday “recommended” the government to declare a “state of emergency” for two weeks in the city of Beirut. During this period, a "supreme military power will be in charge of all the prerogatives in matters of security", according to the closing press release of the Supreme Defense Council. The government is due to hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday.
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