Beirut explosion raises concern over chemical stockpiles in Australia

Australia is a major manufacturer and importer of ammonium nitrate, largely due to its applications in the mining sector. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (XINHUA) - A deadly chemical explosion in Lebanon's capital of Beirut on Tuesday (Aug 4) reignited concern in Australia over large stockpiles of the same chemical near populated areas.

Some community advocates are uneasy about the storing of the chemical near Australia's populated areas, particularly in the port city of Newcastle, north of Sydney.

Commercial explosives company Orica consistently stores between 6,000 and 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, as well as manufacturing roughly 430,000 tonnes of the chemical each year at Kooragang Island in the Port of Newcastle - barely 3km from the city centre.

Just 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was involved in the Beirut explosion, according to Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

Ammonium nitrate is heavily suspected to have triggered the explosion which killed more than 100 people in Lebanon. While the chemical itself is not classified as flammable, it can feed nearby fires with oxygen and carries the risk of explosion.

Australia is a major manufacturer and importer of ammonium nitrate, largely due to its applications in the mining sector.

"It's a totally inappropriate place to have such a dangerous material produced and stored, and it's something we've been complaining about for many, many years," chemical engineer and community campaigner Keith Craig told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"Many people would be killed and injured if we had an accident at Orica," he added.

A spokesman from Orica told Xinhua that the circumstances in Beirut involved a gross mishandling of the product.

"In addition to our own rigorous approach to safety and risk management, our operations at Kooragang Island are highly regulated and regularly inspected by authorities," the spokesman said.

"Ammonium nitrate storage areas at Kooragang Island are fire-resistant, are built exclusively from non-flammable materials, and we have designated exclusion zones around these areas."

Mr Craig acknowledged that due to Australia's stringent oversight and compliance laws, the risk of an incident occurring was low, but he warned against taking any risks.

Australia has already seen two tragic incidents related to the transportation of ammonium nitrate, including a truck explosion in 1972 that killed three.

In 2014, a truck carrying 50 tonnes of the chemical was involved in an accident and exploded, injuring eight people and destroying a bridge, with the mining company involved still facing legal action over the incident.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.