PARIS — Last week's explosion at a port warehouse in Beirut, which killed at least 200 and caused a minimum of $5 billion in damage, should serve as a sobering wake-up call for countries that have equally (or more) dangerous chemical reserves. Beyond the human toll and material consequences, the catastrophic event has also triggered political consequences, with Lebanon's prime minister and his government announcing their resignation amid widespread protests.
Lebanon, as some have pointed out, was a nation already on its knees. The blast and the ensuing investigation into potential negligence and corruption merely served as a catalyst in a society on the brink of collapse.
But it is indeed a very pragmatic matter that pushed the country over the edge, thus begging the question: How do we make sure that similar chemicals, stored for purposes like controlled explosions, fertilization and the oxidation of materials, don't spark similar mayhem? From India to France to Iran, countries are now re-examining safety risks associated with toxic or explosive compounds:
INDIA: 700 tons of ammonium nitrate in limbo
Politicians in the southern Indian city of Chennai are concerned about more than 740 tons of explosive chemical stored on a harbor. Dr. S. Ramadoss, founder of the Pattali Makkal Katchi party, tweeted that "there is a risk of a similar explosion due to ammonium nitrate in the Chennai warehouse."
In India, ammonium nitrate is often used in commercial explosives for mining and construction operations. The stockpile in Chennai was seized more than five years ago, as the company that owned it had failed to obtain the necessary clearance.
Ramadoss now advises that it should be safely disposed of and/or used for less harmful purposes, like composting. Following the explosion in Beirut, the local Chennai customs department checked to make sure its own supply was properly stored and now plans to auction it off.
The Indian Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs is consulting with substance control bodies to confirm that explosive and hazardous material kept across the country does not pose any safety threats.
The Toulouse AZF factory explosion — Photo: City of Toulouse/Wikimedia Commons
FRANCE: Farmers vs. environmental activists
France knows all too well the potential damage of ammonium nitrate: In September 2001 in the southwestern city of Toulouse, an explosion at the AZF (Azote de France) fertilizer factory left 31 dead and 2,442 injured.
The blast, which included 200-300 tons of material, created a 10-meter-deep, 50-meter-wide crater and shattered windows as far as 3 kilometers away, resulting in approximately 2.3 billion euros in damage.
Now, France has some of the world's strictest regulations for the chemical. Although, given the country's large agriculture sector, there are "several tens of thousands of places in France" with ammonium nitrate stashes, according to the Regional Directorate for the Environment, Planning and Housing in Brittany.
Most of this fertilizer is on farms, but there are also 47 businesses with stocks of at least 1,250 tons of ammonium nitrate-based products, as the Ministry of Ecological Transition told French radio station RTL. Some nongovernmental organizations including Les Robins des bois ("The Robin Hoods') are now calling to ban the use of ammonium nitrate as part of a broader shift to create a more ecologically responsible agriculture industry.
IRAN: Ticking time bombs
Tehran city councilman Majid Farahani was recently quoted as saying that the country should fear a "worse calamity than Beirut," given the presence of "informal" fuel storage points in Iran's ports and special economic areas.
Farahani described these fuel depots as "ticking time bombs," as reported in the London-based Kayhan newspaper. "This isn't the type of installation you would want in a city," he said, noting that Tehran is home to a fuel depot in the northwestern district of Shahran, which Farahani compares to a massive bomb "sitting on a fault line."
Every day, according to the councilman, 30,000-liter tanker trucks draw fuel out of the depot about 300 times "before driving through Tehran's residential streets."
The depot, he said, was built 30 years ago, back when there were no homes around Shahran.