Who is responsible for the horrific Beirut Port blast will be formally decided in due course but already it is clear that a patchwork of mismanagement and complacency underpins this catastrophic event, the likes of which must not be allowed to happen again.
The University of Sheffield, UK estimates that the blast in the Port of Beirut was around 1.5 kilotons in TNT equivalent. That makes it one tenth the strength of the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese City of Hiroshima.
As of August 13, 2020, the death toll from the August 4, 2020 explosion was reported at 220 people, with a further 6,000 injured. Michel Aoun, President of Lebanon, has stated the blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in a Beirut Port’ warehouse.
In short order following the explosion, the government announced that a number of port officials have been placed under house arrest pending an investigation.
ALMOST SEVEN YEARS IN STORAGE
The ammonium nitrate arrived on a Moldovan-flagged ship, the mv Rhosus, which entered Beirut port in November 2013. The vessel was suffering technical problems during its voyage from Georgia to Mozambique, according to Shiparrested.com, which deals with shipping-related legal cases.
The Rhosus was inspected, banned from leaving and subsequently abandoned by its owners, sparking several legal claims. The cargo was then placed into storage in a port warehouse.
The explosion is thought to have occurred when sparks from a welding machine ignited a warehouse containing fireworks, quickly causing a fire to spread.
Ammonium nitrate in its pure form is not dangerous. It is, however, heat sensitive. At 32.2 degrees Celsius (89.96 degrees Fahrenheit), ammonium nitrate changes its atomic structure, which affects its chemical properties and in the Beirut warehouse the heat generated caused a chemical ignition.
The head of the Beirut Port and Customs Authority reports writing to the judiciary several times asking that the chemical be exported or sold on to ensure port safety with no response received.
Hassan Koraytem, General Manager, Port of Beirut, has confirmed that the port was aware the material was dangerous when a court first ordered it stored in the warehouse.
Container shipping lines diverted ships immediately after the blast, with CMA CGM using Tripoli, Lebanon and Hapag Lloyd diverting a vessel to Damietta, Egypt.
CMA CGM had a ship in port at the time of the explosion, the 11,400TEU mv CMA CGM Lyra. In a statement, CMA CGM reports the vessel, which was 1.5km from the blast, was not damaged and neither were any crew members hurt.
Hapag-Lloyd, whose Beirut offices were completely destroyed in the blast, had no ships in Beirut at the time, but it believes all laden and empty containers were destroyed.
In 2019, Lebanon handled around 1.2 million TEU over 1100m of quay with 16 ship-to-shore cranes. The ‘new kid on the block’ in Lebanon is the Tripoli Container Terminal, operated under concession by Gulftainer, but currently with just 600m of quay served by two ship-to-shore cranes it does not offer a wholly satisfactory alternative to the Beirut Container Terminal and as such it is very fortunate that the Beirut Container Terminal has been able to resume operations quickly.
Longer term, Gulftainer has plans to develop Tripoli to rival Beirut but it clearly has a lot of work to do before enjoying this status.
BACK IN BUSINESS
Initially there was concern that without adequate port facilities Lebanon may get cut off from the global economy. In terms of container operations, however, just nine days after the blast on August 13, 2020, CMA CGM informed its customers that the operational situation in the port is “now back to normal again”.
The line said: “Damages to Beirut Container Terminal being less serious than what could be expected after the tragic events that took place on August 4th, a first CMA CGM vessel m/v Nicolas Delmas has been operated with success. With immediate effect, all CMA CGM lines will resume their calls at Beirut Port…”
Likewise, Hapag-Lloyd is reinstating services to Lebanon via Beirut Port. The German carrier’s first vessel (mv Mona Lisa) on the Levante Express (LEX) Service called at Beirut on August 14th, 2020.
Hapag’s East Med Express (EME) service also reinstated Beirut calls, with the first vessel calling on August 15th, 2020. The company reports: “Alongside our service reinstatement, we are also reopening booking acceptance for cargo to and from Beirut…”
The situation with regard to other facilities and notably the 120,000-tonne grain silo capacity is, however, really catastrophic with this facility completely destroyed and thus presenting considerable challenges regarding the import of foodstuffs.
PRIVATISATION – BLOWN OFF COURSE?
The Beirut Container Terminal was actually engaged in a concession process at the time of the explosion, a process which had already been delayed but now in the aftermath of the explosion the timing of the concession process is even less clear.
Offered by the Ministry of Public Works & Transport Beyrouth, the current process represents a further concession of the terminal which in a previous process had been awarded to the Beirut Container Terminal Consortium which has run the concession since 2005.
The consortium comprises Lebanese-based International Port Management Beirut (IPMB) and UK and USA-based interests.
CMA CGM, which provides a third of the terminal’s business, is considered a likely bidder, but the timing of the privatisation programme under the current circumstances remains to be confirmed.
The fundamental questions remain, however, – why was this cargo stored for so long and why were correct safety protocols for hazardous cargo not being followed?
Lessons need to be learned from this catastrophe, and quickly, beyond understanding why IMO safety codes and practices were not followed.
Beirut’s experience may provide salutary lessons to others and hopefully leading to prevention not cure!
Source: Port Strategy