Post Beirut blast, 700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored near Chennai set the alarm bells ringing

TE Raja Simhan Chennai | Updated on August 07, 2020 Published on August 06, 2020

Smoke rises after an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020, in this picture obtained from a social media video.   -  REUTERS

Two days after the devastating blast that ripped across Beirut triggered by the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in the port, there are concerns over the 700 tonnes of the chemical stored in a warehouse at Manali in the city outskirts.


In 2015, ammonium nitrate in 37 containers arrived at the Chennai port, imported by Sri Amman Chemicals. However, the containers were confiscated immediately by the Special Investigation Bureau of the Customs as the company did not have a licence to import the cargo. Since then it has been lying at Sattva Manali Container Freight Station. The Customs department is now auctioning the cargo, sources said.

Ammonium nitrate is an odourless crystalline substance commonly used in manufacturing agricultural fertiliser. The highly explosive compound is added to improve nitrogen content in fertilisers. When it comes into contact with an open flame or ignition source, it explodes violently.

The Beirut tragedy, which razed down a large part of the city and killed over 100 people, was not the first such incident involving ammonium nitrate. In 2013 an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in Texas, US, killing 15 people. However, it was a fraction of the size of the Beirut explosion.

Hazardous chemical

B Govindarajan, Chief Operating Officer of the Chennai-based Tirwin Management Services (P) Ltd, which trains professionals in handling hazardous cargo, said ammonium nitrate that contains more than 0.2 combustible substance is a serious explosive classified as UN 0222 under as Division 1.1D and is forbidden for carriage by air.

It appears the transportation is not an issue but the storage is, he said.

“Large quantities and unmonitored storage for a very long period appear to be the villain. The Beirut tragedy is an eye-opener since we can’t confidently claim that our ports, airports and other terminals don’t have such material lying. It is time for the authorities to initiate audits with safety considerations in mind,” he said.

Citing the Beirut tragedy, PMK Founder S Ramadoss expressed shock over reports that large quantities of ammonium nitrate is stored near Chennai port for nearly five years and called for its safe disposal. Such large quantities of ammonium nitrate stored in the port, could be dangerous, he said in a tweet.

However, Chennai Port Trust Chairman P Raveendran denied that there was ammonium nitrate stored in the port.

CBIC directive

The Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) has urgently directed Customs and field formations to immediately verify and confirm within 48 hours that any hazardous and explosive material lying in warehouses and ports across the country meets all safety and fire standards and presents no danger to life and property.

This precautionary step has been taken given the recent incident of an explosion in a foreign country caused by such material, the CBIC said in a tweet.

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Published on August 06, 2020
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