Lessons From Beirut: Why There Is Now A Demand To Safely Do Away With A Stockpile Of Ammonium Nitrate Near Chennai

by M R Subramani - Aug 7, 2020 05:45 PM +05:30 IST
Lessons From Beirut: Why There Is Now A Demand To Safely Do Away With A Stockpile Of Ammonium Nitrate Near ChennaiPossible risks of ammonium nitrate stored near Chennai.
  • Manali, a Chennai suburb, is home to chemical industries and an oil refinery, making the region vulnerable to explosions.

    It would be worthwhile if the ammonium nitrate is stored in a totally secluded area, which Manali is not.

A huge explosion in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, linked to a storage of ammonium nitrate, killing over 150 and injuring thousands besides damaging property worth hundreds of crores of rupees, has led to concerns being raised in India on whether the chemical is being stored in a similar way.

Yesterday (6 August), Dr S Ramadoss, founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a major political force in Tamil Nadu, tweeted that 740 tonnes of ammonium nitrate has been stored in a warehouse near Chennai port for almost five years now.

Expressing fear that the stored chemical could lead to a similar blast, he urged for the safe removal of the stored chemical and using it for fertilisers.

This resulted in joint commissioner of customs (preventive) T Samaya Murali responding that the chemical was seized due to import policy restrictions.

Ammonium Nitrate Seizure In Chennai

The seizure was made under the 1962 Customs Act read with 1884 Explosives Act and Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012, said Murali, adding that the cargo has been kept safe in a container freight station (CFS) at suburban Manali, 20 km from Chennai.

The joint commissioner said that there was no residential locality within 2 kilometres of the CFS, which had undertaken all safety measures. The Customs Department was also monitoring it to ensure public safety.

The Customs Department has e-auctioned the chemicals as part of its process to dispose of it. The chemical will be disposed of shortly with all safety measures being followed.

Customs officials seized the consignment as the Karur-based firm, which brought the chemical in a ship, had sought permission to import fertiliser grade ammonium nitrate. However, the chemical gotten from South Korea in 37 containers was found to be of explosive grade.

Officials later found out that the firm had sold the chemicals to explosives dealers. The Customs Department, in an affidavit submitted in the Madras High Court in 2015, gave a list of 15 firms that bought the explosive grade ammonium nitrate from the Karur-based firm.

Thus, the consignment was kept under the Customs Department control.

No doubt, the PMK’s concern is valid. However, over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was stored in Beirut. Compared to that, the storage in Chennai is a little over 25 per cent of it.

This does not mean it won’t pose any danger but it is likely that the impact may not be as gruesome as witnessed in Lebanon.

Ammonium Nitrate: Its Uses And Features

Ammonium nitrate is a simple chemical derived from ammonia gas reacting with nitric acid. It is used in fertilisers that helps in leafy, green production of plants. This has been in use since the 1940s and is inexpensive to manufacture.

However, the chemical is volatile too. It produces a voluminous amount of heat. In the case of fertilisers, granules are produced using the chemical fused with ammonium sulfate to wear down the volatility.

Since ammonium nitrate is volatile, it is of strategic use in some industries. It is used by construction, mining and quarrying industries, especially to carry out explosions.

It is also used for food preservation, particularly for cold packs. Ammonium nitrate is odourless and nearly colourless and is soluble in water.

Ammonium nitrate can be very explosive if mixed with fuel or other such ingredients. These combinations will require detonators to explode.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a favourite of terrorists across the world, make use of ammonium nitrate fuel oil or an-fo. Explosives such as RDX or trinitrotoluene (TNT) are used as triggers in such IEDs.

Some blasts, such as the one in Pulwama against the Central Reserve Police Force personnel last year or in Mumbai 2008 or in Coimbatore in 1998 were triggered by such combinations.

Restrictions On Ammonium Nitrate In India

In 2012, the government issued The Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012, under The Explosives Act, 1884, mainly to prevent its misuse.

The rules make storage of ammonium nitrate in large quantities in populated areas illegal in the country.

Industrial licence is required under the Industrial Development and Regulation Act, 1951, to produce ammonium nitrate, while licence under the rules is required for any other activity relating to the chemical.

Problems With Storage Of Ammonium Nitrate

In the case of Beirut as well as Chennai’s suburb Manali, the problem is that the chemical is a fire hazard.

Ammonium nitrate, stored in a place, can explode if the stored chemical comes into contact with some explosive or if some fire breaks out in the place of storage.

The fire can be triggered by the heat generated when the chemical gets oxidised. This was reported to be the cause in Beirut. Similar incidents have occurred in the past.

On 12 August 2015, a series of explosions took place in Tianjin, China, killing at least 173 people. The explosions took place in a container storage station at the Port of Tianjin. The dead included 104 firefighters.

The explosions were reportedly caused by an overheated container of dry nitrocellulose but papers showed that 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored in the states.

On 12 April 1947, a fire was triggered at the Port of Texas by the detonation of 2,100 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in a French ship. It led to a chain of reaction leading to fire and explosions in other ships besides an oil storage facility nearby.

At least 581 people were feared killed and except for one staff, all members of Texas City Fire Department died in the mishap.

Issues At Hand In Chennai

The customs joint commissioner’s statement is reassuring but danger still exists with regard to the storage of ammonium nitrate.

Though the official says there is no residential locality within 2 km of the CFS, the issue is Manali is an industrial suburb and there could be small or medium-sized units near the CFS.

Manali is also an area where chemical industries such as Madras Fertilisers Ltd, Indian Organic Chemicals Ltd, Kothari Chemicals, Manali Petro-Chemicals Ltd operate.

The region also has an oil refinery and the presence of these industries make it vulnerable to any explosion or blast since, as in the case of Texas, it could lead to a chain of reactions.

Local reports say that there are two housing colonies within 1.5 km of the CFC. Nearly 15,000 people reportedly reside in these colonies.

The question is: should such an eventuality be risked particularly in the background of what happened in Beirut.

It would be worthwhile if the chemical is stored in a totally secluded area, which Manali is not.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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