A chemical substance pointed out. Tuesday evening, a few hours after the two violent explosions which violently affected Beirut, the Prime Minister of Lebanon Hassan Diab indicated that these explosions, which according to a provisional toll left at least 100 dead and 4,000 injured, would be due to 2,750 tons of Ammonium nitrate stored near the port.
A substance that must be stored rigorously
White, odorless salt used as the base for many nitrogen fertilizers in the form of granules called ammonitrates, the latter are used by farmers who buy this substance in large bags or in bulk. However, they are not combustible products: they are oxidizers, meaning that they allow the combustion of another substance already on fire.
“It’s very difficult to burn it,” Jimmie Oxley, professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, who has herself worked on the combustion of ammonium nitrate, told AFP. “It’s not easy to detonate it.”
Detonation is only possible with contamination by an incompatible substance or an intense source of heat. And storage must therefore follow rules to isolate ammonium nitrate from flammable liquids (gasoline, oils, etc.), corrosive liquids, flammable solids or even substances that give off significant heat, among other prohibited items, according to a technical sheet from the French Ministry of Agriculture.
Already responsible for tragedies
This is not the first time that this chemical has been responsible for tragedies, accidental and criminal. One of the very first accidents killed 561 in 1921 in Oppau, Germany, in a BASF factory. In 1947, Brest was shaken by the explosion of the Norwegian freighter Ocean Liberty which was carrying the substance.
In France too, stacked in bulk in a hangar of the AZF chemical plant, in the southern suburbs of Toulouse, some 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrates suddenly exploded and caused a wind of death and desolation to blow over the fourth city of France September 21, 2001: 31 people died, and the explosion was heard 80 km around.
Across the Atlantic, a terrible explosion at the West Fertilizer fertilizer plant in West Texas killed 15 people in 2013. A stockpile of ammonium nitrates exploded in an arson attack. The lack of storage standards had been questioned by investigators.
Ammonium nitrate can also be used in explosive devices. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb made from two tons of the fertilizer in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
An essential product in agriculture
But Professor Oxley qualifies by recalling that ammonium nitrate has become essential for agriculture and construction.
“We wouldn’t have this modern world without explosives, and we couldn’t feed today’s people without ammonium nitrate fertilizers,” she says. “We need it, but you have to be really careful what you do with it.”
In Lebanon, the investigation is still in its infancy but the Prime Minister has been clear, those responsible will have to answer for their failings.
“It is unacceptable that a cargo of ammonium nitrate, estimated at 2,750 tonnes, has been present for six years in a warehouse, without precautionary measures. It is unacceptable and we cannot be silent,” he said. he declared before the Superior Defense Council, according to remarks reported by a spokesperson at a press conference.