Beirut blast: 700 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate stored in Chennai safe, e-auction done, says Customs
Chennai, Aug 06: Two days after unsafely stored ammonium nitrate that killed at least 135 people and injured thousands in Beirut, Lebanon, concerns have been raised about stored nearly 700 tonnes of the explosive ammonium nitrate for years under the custody of the Customs Department, outside Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
Referring the fatal Beirut tragedy, PMK chief Dr Ramadoss demanded safe disposal of the explosive chemical and its safe use in making other products.
"There is a risk of a similar explosion. To avert that the explosives ought to be disposed safely and used for manufacture of fertiliser and other needs," Ramadoss tweeted.
But Chennai port officials have denied and said the pile of explosives is no longer stored in the harbor.
"Around 36 containers, each with around 20 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, have been shifted long time ago and now they are under the Customs Department's control," an officer from Department said.
The chemical worth Rs 1.80 crore was seized from a Tamil Nadu-based importer in 2015, who had allegedly declared it as fertiliser grade although it was an explosive grade, a Customs official said.
However, the consignment, imported from South Korea, was safe and an e-auction process was on to clear it, he said. According to a statement issued by the Customs Department, the seized consignment was kept in safe custody in the container freight station at Manali.
"The seized chemical is securely stored and the safety of the cargo and public is ensured considering the hazardous nature of the substance," the statement said. The freight station was located about 20 km away from the city and there was no residential locality within the vicinity of 2 km, it said.
All safety measures are being taken by the freight station and monitored by the Customs to ensure public safety. Also, the process of disposal of the cargo is taken up promptly by the Customs, it said. The disposal would be done within a short period by following all safety measures, the statement said.
The Customs' clarification comes in the wake of reports in a section of the media that huge quantities of the chemical substance being stored could be a risk, even as political party Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) sought the government to ensure its safe disposal.
kk"The goods are safe and pose no danger" a senior Customs Department official told PTI when asked about the fears of safety in the backdrop of the devastating Beirut explosion.
Elaborating, the official, on condition of anonymity, said the sleuths had in November 2015 seized 697 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in 37 containers valued at Rs 1.80 crore from the importer. "The importer had misdeclared the goods as ammonium nitrate of fertiliser grade whereas on examination it was found to be of explosive grade and that (the importer) had not followed the Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012," he said.
The containers were seized then and were since lying at the freight station while the licence of the importer had been cancelled. While seven tonnes of the chemical got spoilt during the deluge in December 2015, the remaining 690 tonnes were under process of e-auctioning, he said.
What is ammonium nitrate and why it is explosive
Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound containing the element nitrogen, as well as hydrogen and oxygen, and is commonly used in agriculture as fertilizer. Nitrogen is an essential element for plants and ammonium nitrate is particularly good, compared with other fertilizers.
Ammonium nitrate is also an explosive compound and is used around the world in mining and construction operations in the times of detonations.
The chemical is highly stable under normal conditions.
But it can explode after exposure to contaminants or fuel oil and then heated.
If the chemical heated with above 170 degrees Fahrenheit, it begins to undergo decomposition. With rapid detonation, chemical reaction can occur that converts ammonium nitrate to nitrogen and oxygen gas and water vapor. And the process releases huge amounts of energy.
Though burning ammonium nitrate in an open field is not likely to result in an explosion in confined space high energy explosion can occur.
In the Beirut explosion, not all of the ammonium nitrate used exploded in the explosion.
Some of it decomposes slowly creating toxic gases like nitrogen oxides which are responsible for the red-brown plume of smoke seen in the aftermath of the explosion, says specialists.
As ammonium nitrate is potentially explosive, countries and unions impose strict regulations on storing and processing it.
"It is generally kept under controlled conditions and modified volumes to minimize chances of explosion," says Brent Kaiser, a plant biologist at the University of Sydney.
Notably, in 2015, explosions partly caused by the detonation of around 800 tons of ammonium nitrate rocked the Beijing port in China, killing 173 people.
In 1947, the worst industrial accident in US history that killed 581 people when a ship in the harbor of Texas City, Texas, carrying approximately 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire.
Notably about 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored in a Beirut port warehouse that exploded on Tuesday.