What the Beirut tragedy teaches us about chemical management compliance

On August 4th, 2020, a mushroom like explosion hit the capital city of Beirut with a reported power of 2.75 kilotons and a magnitude equivalent to an earthquake of 3.3 magnitude.

With more than 158 people dead, 6000 injured and 300,000 displaced, some compare the disaster to a nuclear bomb (however, experts do not support this theory as no bright radiation flash was observed)Most likelythis unfortunate occurrence resulted from a chemical explosion linked to Ammonium Nitrate (CAS No. 6484-52-2) and possibly an explosive such asTrinitrotoluene (CAS No. 118-96-7). Unfortunately, this is not the first time that an accident like this has occurred.  

Restrictions on chemical management evolve from tragic accidents like this one

Major risks result from the incorrect handling, manufacturing, use or storage of dangerous substances. The first major incident like this one took place in the city of Seveso, Italy on July 10th, 1976, when a dioxin cloud spread in the area after the explosion of a chemical plant. From here, the term “Seveso” emerged, and Directive 82/501/EEC known as the Seveso Directive was adopted. 

Under the Seveso Directivean establishment is defined as the whole location under the control of an operator where dangerous substances are present in one or more installations, including common or related infrastructures or activities. Establishments are either lower-tier or upper-tier. Such establishments can include refineries, petrochemical sites, oil depots and explosives depots. The Seveso Directive is based on a continuous improvement cycle to prevent major accidents. This system is governed by 4 major principles (prevention, preparation, response and lessons learned) applicable to Member States of the European Union and operators of establishments (upper-tier and low-tier).  

In establishments categorized as upper tier (most dangerous), the main requirements relate to the drafting of safety reports and internal emergency plans. The most important obligations imposed on competent authorities relate to examining the safety reports, communicating the conclusions to the operator, drawing up the external emergency plans, informing the public on safety measures, carrying out  inspections, identifying groups of establishments with possible “domino effects” and taking into account the possibility of a major accident/hazard when conducting land-use planning. The most recent amendment to the Directive took place in 2012.  

The crucial role of chemical regulation in preventing accidents: hazardous substance regulation around the globe

The colossal explosion in Beirut’s port highlights the crucial role of chemical regulation for the handling and storage of hazardous substances.  Countries tend to regulate the management of hazardous substances through extensive texts that include provisions for use, packaging, labeling and storage. Further, some elements are explicitly addressed in light of the significant danger and risk that they pose to public safety and the environment.

The UK suggests outside storage for ammonium nitrate

The United-Kingdom, with reference to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, produced a leaflet that serves as guidance for employers on the safe storage and handling of Ammonium Nitrate at harbors, merchant stores, manufacturers’ premises, and other locationsEmployers must minimize risks of explosion by taking precautions against the heating of the compound, its contamination and severe confinement. It is advisable to store Ammonium Nitrate in one-floor buildings constructed from non-flammable materials such as bricks or steel, along with proper ventilation. However, specific measures can apply to situations where the substance is stored near densely populated areas, which unfortunately was the case in Beirut. That said, the Health and Safety Executive suggests outside storage away from combustible materials and sources of contamination, while applying appropriate methods to prevent deterioration due to sunlight or rain.

Finland mandates stringent management of ammonium nitrate

Finland sets out more stringent conditions regarding Ammonium Nitrate. Chapter 7 of the Government Decree (856/2012) on the Safety Requirements for Industrial Handling and Storage of Hazardous Chemicals specifies special provisions for this compound similar to the guidance provided in the UK. It also dives deeper into more detailed requirements targeting the specifications of storage buildingswarehouses and vehicles; regulates the handling of ignition or heat sources that might be placed near the compound and enforces principles for placing landfills. Contrary to the UK, the Finnish provisions mentioned above are mandatory and must be strictly complied with by the concerned entities.

Did the absence of specific ammonium nitrate regulations in Lebanon cause this accident to occur?

Lebanon does not have specific regulations regarding Ammonium Nitrate. The handling and storage of hazardous chemicals and materials are regulated under Decree No. 11802 of 2004 on Occupational Health and Safety, which provides the standard Health & Safety measures for any workplace. These requirements cover ventilation, passageways, storage building specifications, warning signs, and training. Additionally, Law No. 444 of 2002 on Protection of the Environment requires a permit to be obtained for the import and storage of dangerous materials or chemicals for which terms would be issued under Decree 

Experts can opine that the absence of comprehensive, and precise, texts regulating Ammonium Nitrate contributed to this tragedy. However, the provisions of the relevant existing laws do create a basis for handling hazardous substances. An employer, or in this case, the port authorities, could adapt the existing provisions to the actual circumstances. Even if a particular substance does not have a unique requirement, employers would be well served by taking a more cautious approach to managing that substance. If investigations show violations of the existing requirements, then the port authorities could face civil or criminal liability.  

What does this mean for future management of industrial establishments?

Employers that handle hazardous substances are advised to:  

  • perform regular and thorough audits to make sure that a similar accident will not occur on their premises (following this incident, the Walloon environmental administration in Belgium was given orders to carry out an audit of industrial plants in the region that use Ammonium Nitrate) 
  • conduct risk analyses and inspections to ensure compliance with the existing relevant regulations 
  • reach out to the authorities with questions 
  • keep specifically trained experts on staff (as in Antwerp)

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