Two explosions in bulk terminal facilities in the course of a month. The one in Beirut was far more disastrous than the one at a grain store in Tilbury — although the latter is a far more common occurrence. And, of course, in the case of the former, the disaster would never have occurred but for the continued problem of substandard and unsafe shipping that lead to a vessel, together with its crew and dangerous cargo, being abandoned by its owners in the port of a close-to-failed state. “But that is another issue”.

Two of your most senior advisors have kindly agreed to give their  take on events:

Professor Mike Bradley is Director of the Wolfson Centre for Bulk Solids Handling Technology at the University of Greenwich and sits on the ABTO Members Advisory Panel. Mike draws parallels between Beirut and Tilbury, the two incidents being predictable and avoidable — appropriately entitling his contribution “An explosive question”.

Captain Richard Brough OBE is Head of ICHCA International and Director of Brough Marine Limited. Last October at our Amsterdam Bulk Terminals conference.

Richard, who was interviewed by the BBC in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, makes the case for “The need for constant vigilance” where health and safety is concerned


Captain Richard Brough OBE – The need for constant vigilance

The recent terrible incident in Beirut should be a timely reminder to all who operate ports and terminals that the cargoes you handle and store, either routinely or exceptionally — as was the case with this impounded cargo of bagged Ammonium Nitrate (AN) — should be kept under constant review from a health, safety and regulatory perspective.

Even the most innocuous of cargoes can be become a serious issue if the handling and storage methods are not suitable for the environment in which operations are being carried out.

It is also no excuse if you are unfamiliar with the product as there is a plethora of guidance and regulatory material, and considerable expertise available from associations such as ABTO and its affiliate organization, ICHCA.

It is not inconceivable that some terminal staff are ignorant of the potential dangers inherent in a cargo such as AN, but as the old adage goes “ignorance is no defence in law”.

Incidents with AN go back a long way (Texas 1947) and there have been many since. In response to major incidents in Europe, the Sevsco Directive was developed. This not only ensured that the cargo and its storage should be thoroughly risk assessed, but also the impact on the surrounding hinterland. Are there any major industrial installations nearby, urban centres,  yacht marinas and leisure facilities and so on.

In the UK, this was transposed into the COMAH Regs (Control of Major Accident Hazard). If you wish to handle and store AN there are rigorous procedures to go through, including a through risk assessment. You have to apply for approval from the HSE and the local authority and lodge a set of your local rules for the handling, amount of cargo to be stored and expected maximum amount of time the cargo will be in transit, beyond that it is classed as storage and the rules are even more stringent.

Many terminals have had their requests turned down because  of  adjacent  risk issues.

Even for in transit AN, the intended storage facility faces precautionary measures, packaged AN (usually in big bags) must be set in 300 tonne lots with a one metre space between parcels, gaps all around the shed walls for access, for extinguishers on each piece of handling equipment, drains, and culverts sealed to prevent cargo getting inside, spills dealt with immediately, appropriate signage, security control (remember AN is an explosive — usually for commercial use — but the favourite ingredient of illicit bomb-making), even matters such as avoiding contamination from oil,  grease,  sawdust  etc  must be considered.

Was this considered when the AN cargo was stored in Beirut? We should not speculate, but given the length of time the cargo was stored and the resulting explosion, probably not.

AN is an internationally regulated cargo, either the IMDG Code for packaged cargo and the IMSBC Code for bulk product, and we all remember the disaster on the MV Cheshire off Las Palmas a few years ago.

However, the IMO, who are responsible for these provisions do not legislate ashore. There are no international regulations covering shore-side facilities (apart from the ISPS Code). Ports and terminals are not regulated that way. A recent symposium at IMO suggested that they should be. It would,  however  be inherently difficult.

It is therefore up to individual nation states to develop their own port regulations (and ports their own bylaws) for such matters. IMO helps by developing recommendations, and it have one on handling and storing dangerous cargoes, but it is a high-level treatise advising governments on what they should include, or consider, in any national legislation.

Many nations follow this — the UK and EU (which has collective rules) are an example. But what about other nations? What have they done? Even if they have, do they police the regulations and audit companies to ensure they are being followed? In the case of Beirut, the jury will be out for a long time, but the answers, when they come, will reveal some shortcomings, beyond a doubt.

All the more tragic then, so much loss of life, so much devastation and a country already on its knees, brought further down because of lack of adherence to established principles for handling cargo.

ICHCA has seen many examples of such practices around the world, so Lebanon is not unique. That is why, along with our partners, we are developing a “dummies guide for DG in ports”. The idea has been around for a while; it now has a greater sense of urgency.



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