“The explosion came at a very high cost with over 218 deaths, 6,000 injured, and at least 15 billion USD in destruction to infrastructure. In around 15 minutes Beirut lost over 15 years of development gains. We must learn lessons from this catastrophic disaster, not just for Lebanon but for the world at large, on good governance, handling hazardous materials, prevention, preparedness, and response,” stated the Head of the National Disaster Risk Management Unit of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers of Lebanon at the UN/OECD seminar in follow-up to the 2020 Beirut port explosion, held on 14 December 2021.
“Major accidents involving ammonium nitrate and ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers are neither uncommon nor new. But such accidents can be prevented, and their impacts mitigated by using available tools,” stressed UNECE Deputy Executive Secretary Dmitry Mariyasin to over 500 stakeholders gathered from around the world to learn about existing solutions developed by the United Nations and partners and countries’ experiences to improve safety.
All regions face risks. In the Pan-European region and North America, examples of accidents include the Toulouse fertilizer plant explosion in France 20 years ago and the 2013 West Fertilizer plant explosion in the United States, among others dating back as far as the BASF plant explosion in Oppau, Germany 100 years ago. In other regions, examples from the last decade include: the 2013 thermal decomposition incidents in Santa Catarina, Brazil; the 2015 Tianjin port explosion in China; and the 2021 Bata explosions in Equatorial Guinea.
The seminar was co-organized under UNECE’s leadership, in a unique partnership with IMO, ILO, UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit, UNDRR and the OECD. The speakers, representing international organizations, 13 countries, and four industry associations, demonstrated to more than 500 participants from around the globe that action is needed to strengthen risk management of hazardous substances in port areas and beyond. Many legal and policy instruments and recommendations exist at the international and national levels to address the classification, testing, packaging, storage, handling and transport of hazardous substances, including ammonium nitrate (AN) and AN-based fertilizers, such as the Globally Harmonized System on the Classification and Labelling of Chemicals and the United Nations Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods. They also address related accident prevention, preparedness and response, such as UNECE’s Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents. However, countries and industries need to take steps to actively ensure the implementation and compliance of these.
The seminar emphasized the importance of differentiating between different types of AN and AN-based fertilizers. Due to their different hazard characteristics, they require different measures to ensure safety. Communicating this information to frontline workers, firefighters, emergency responders and other stakeholders is essential, as is training them to prevent, prepare for and respond to accidents involving AN and AN-based fertilizers. For example, firefighters need to be made aware of their hazardous characteristics because they only have a short window of time to extinguish fires before AN detonates; many firefighters lost their lives in Beirut, Tianjin and West, United States, among accidents elsewhere. Moreover, past accidents and a joint UN/OECD survey preceding the seminar show that many countries need to further ensure that the public knows what to do in case of an emergency. Off-site contingency plans should be prepared, among operators and the surrounding communities with involvement of the public, tested and enacted in case of emergencies, with clear information on measures to take to mitigate any health and environmental impacts.
Conducting risk assessments, land-use planning and siting are crucial to preventing major accidents involving AN and AN-based fertilizers and mitigating their consequences should they occur. Risk assessment methodologies help authorities and industries understand the damage that could be caused from potential accidents and the safety measures needed to be in place. Such information should be considered by national (or local) authorities in their decision-making on land-use planning and siting to regulate these hazardous activities. It should take into account location, e.g. proximity to highly populated areas, transboundary effects on the population in neighbouring countries, and environmental impacts. To this effect, the Ministry of Ecological Transition, France shared lessons learned from the Toulouse fertilizer plant explosion, resulting in the adoption of a new law for technological risks prevention. The Estonian Rescue Board shared a good practice on its guide for land-use planners and designers, with strict requirements to review risk assessment before authorizing any activity.
Inspections provide an important means to ensure that rules and guidelines are being implemented and complied with. Several presentations at the seminar, including from the authority of the Port of Klaipėda, Lithuania and the South African Police Service of South Africa, addressed inspection practices and challenges. The criteria and frequency for inspections should depend upon the type and quantity of the AN or AN-based fertilizer being stored, handled or transported; associated hazards and risks; conditions of the site and other chemicals or explosives present; and the location of the site. Many countries reported having heightened their inspection practices immediately following the Beirut port explosion. The seminar concluded that high levels of inspections should be developed and maintained to ensure safe and secure management of AN and AN-based fertilizers.
The seminar allowed representatives from different communities worldwide, including national and local authorities (ranging from industrial safety, chemicals management, disaster risk reduction, emergency response, firefighters, police to maritime, occupational safety and health, transport), industry, academia, research institutions and NGOs to learn from the good practices presented and to exchange information. The United Nations and OECD co-organizers highlight that the seminar provided a platform to reinforce existing cooperation and partnerships among the range of institutions present and with others, and to strengthen the implementation of existing legal and policy instruments, expressing their readiness to further support related efforts by authorities, industry and stakeholders. On behalf of the co-organizers, UNECE’s Deputy Executive Secretary invited participants to take all actions within their realm to reinforce safety within their countries, institutions and companies - in order to best manage and reduce technological disaster risks. “We must do our utmost to prevent accidents like the one in Beirut from happening again, and to mitigate their consequences, saving lives and safeguarding our precious environment. We should not let another ammonium nitrate blast happen”.
More information on the seminar and its documentation materials are available at https://unece.org/info/Environmental-Policy/Industrial-Accidents/events/358445.