Monday, August 10, 2020

Sad Lessons from Beirut Ammonium Nitrate Explosion


On Tuesday, August 4, a warehouse in the crowded downtown port area of Beirut, Lebanon caught fire.  Lebanon has been going through hard times lately:  COVID-19, hyperinflation, and general government dysfunction.  Ordinarily,  a warehouse fire would not be cause for concern.  But this fire was different, because 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate was stored in the warehouse as a result of a combination of business misjudgment, bureaucratic incompetence, and negligence.


There are YouTube videos that show what happened next.  In one mobile-phone clip shot from a few miles away, an orange-colored smoke cloud towers above the downtown area.  Suddenly a black ball with cracks of yellow balloons outward at unbelievable speed, followed by a larger whitish spray of water that covers many city blocks.  And then the shockwave hits and the phone is apparenly knocked out of the witness's hand.


By the latest counting available at this writing (Sunday), at least 157 people were killed, over 5,000 were injured, and up to 300,000 people have been rendered homeless by the blast, which leveled almost all the buildings in the immediate vicinity and broke windows for a radius of many kilometers. 


How did that much ammonium nitrate end up in the middle of the capital city of Lebanon?  By a series of mishaps and oversights that, taken individually, were fairly minor.  But the end effect was disastrous.


A BBC article has straightened out the tangled tale.  In September of 2013, the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship MV Rhosus set sail from Batumi, a city on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, to deliver ammonium nitrate to an explosives factory in Mozambique.  After traveling through the Bosporous Strait and docking in Greece for about a month, the ship headed across the Mediterranean for the Suez Canal, which would take it to the eastern coast of Africa.


But somewhere in the Mediterranean, something went wrong.  One source said that the ship had "technical problems," but the Russian captain, a Mr. Prokoshev, said that the ship's owner had a cash shortfall, so in order to get enough money to pay for the Suez Canal passage fee, he ordered the captain to pick up a load of heavy machinery in Beirut.  In any event, the MV Rhosus ended up docking unexpectedly in Beirut in November of 2013.  According to the captain, the machinery was too heavy to load, and the owner didn't have enough money to pay the Beirut port fees and a fine.  This is why the Lebanese port authorities impounded the ship and its cargo.


To make matters worse, when presented with this situation, the owners of the ship and its cargo abandoned it to creditors and the port authorities, leaving them with 2,750 tons of dangerous ammonium nitrate and a crew that began running low on food and supplies.


Beirut has an official called the Judge of Urgent Matters, and when the crew petitioned this entity for permission to leave the ship and go back to their various homes, the judge eventually relented.  In early 2014, port authorities transferred the bagged ammonium nitrate from the abandoned ship to a warehouse near a grain elevator in the port to await "auctioning and/or proper disposal." 


No actual crime had been committed, but by a series of messups, the Port of Beirut became the unwilling owner of a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate.


Lower-level officials seemed to know the tremendous hazard that this stuff presented, and the BBC discovered messages from customs officials pleading with the Judge of Urgent Matters to do something about the confiscated explosives.  It appears they tried to get action at least six times in the next three years.  One can question the appropriateness of the judge's title by the fact that the stuff sat there all the way from 2014 until last Tuesday.  Reportedly, the Public Works MInister Michel Najjar was talking about the stuff with the port manager as recently as late July, but again, nothing was done.


Up until the 1970s, Lebanon was one of the more competently run countries in the Middle East.  But things have deteriorated since then, and the explosion last week was the end product of a bureaucratic failure of historic proportions.


As the ship's captain commented to an interviewer, the best thing that could have happened is if the port had paid the ship's owner to take the ship and its cargo away as soon as they could.  It would have cost maybe $200,000, but the port authorities would have been spared having to deal with the hot potato of that much ammonium nitrate.


That didn't happen.  What the situation needed was a person with both the authority and the courage to get rid of the ammonium nitrate, which could have been sold or even donated as fertilizer, which is its other common use besides that of an explosive.  But that would have gone against what may be an all-too-common tendency in some government organizations, which is to deal with the apparently urgent over the truly important but not apparently urgent matters at hand.


One important function of governments is to act as a kind of social immune system, defending the body politic from potential and actual threats that are constantly attacking it.  Beirut's political immune system has been weakened by strife, the war in Syria, economic dislocations, and other factors to the point that a very basic "immune response" of getting what amounted to a time bomb out of the city center failed.  We hope that the citizens of Beirut and Lebanon will now stand a better chance of getting what they've been asking for for years:  more competence in government.  But governments everywhere, even the U. S., can learn from this tragedy that incompetence can have a heavy price.


Sources:  The BBC report on how the ammonium nitrate got to Beiruit is at  I also referred to a report by the Indian Express at and Wikipedia articles on Beirut and Lebanon.

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