Last month, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, killing around 180 people, bringing down the Lebanese government, and sending officials around the world scrambling to figure out whether similar catastrophes were waiting to happen in their own ports and industrial facilities.
The short answer of course was, “Yes.” Around the world, countless industrial facilities and storage depots store dangerous chemicals in risky ways, including vast quantities of the same agricultural fertilizer that detonated in Beirut. In Dakar, officials found 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate sitting around in warehouses. In Chennai, port officials admitted that they were unsafely storing 800 tons of the chemical. Romanian officials uncovered almost 9,000 tons, including 5,000 tons at a single warehouse.
The United States isn’t immune to such slip-ups. In 1947, 600 people died when a boat loaded with 2,300 tons of fertilizer exploded while docked in Texas City, Texas. More recently, we’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t take thousands of tons of chemicals to cause a disaster. In 2013, a Texas fertilizer plant caught fire and exploded, killing 15 people and demolishing hundreds of nearby homes; it was later found to have been storing around 50 tons of ammonium nitrate.
The real lesson from Lebanon—and Dakar, and Chennai, and Texas—is that preventing disasters doesn’t just depend on stopping importers and distributors from improperly storing huge quantities of chemicals. Risks are now distributed all through our industrial supply chain, and we need a diligent, joined-up approach to safety to prevent both large-scale disasters and smaller accidents that can be just as tragic for those affected by them.
That means getting three simple things right: oversight, communication and preventive maintenance. Let’s take a closer look at the way manufacturers can leverage these capabilities to keep their facilities safe in the wake of the Beirut disaster.EHS Today