Amid the scare of rising Covid-19 positive cases coupled with the streak of industrial mishaps in Vizag since May this year, fear gripped scores of denizens in the city of destiny as they saw video clips of devastating blast at a port in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The devastation annihilated the port which is at the heart of Lebanese capital. The waterfront neighborhood, normally full of restaurants and nightclubs, was essentially flattened. A number of crowded residential neighborhoods in the city’s eastern and predominantly Christian half were also ravaged.
The casualty toll continued to rise, more than 150 confirmed dead and more than 5000 were injured, and some people were still missing. Rescue workers still struggling to treat thousands of people wounded in an enormous explosion turned their attention on Wednesday morning to the desperate search for survivors. With electricity out in most of the city, emergency workers were limited in what they could do until the sun rose, when they joined residents digging through the wreckage even as fires still soldered around them.
The countdown to catastrophe began with a dilapidated, Russian-owned freighter plagued by debts and a disgruntled crew. The ship, the Rhesus, flew the flag of Moldova and was owned by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman living in Cyprus. It left Batumi, Georgia, with a cargo of ammonium nitrate bound for Mozambique, but in November 2013, it made a detour to Beirut. The explosion appears to have been accidental, a conflagration of chemicals taken from an impounded ship and left in a warehouse for six years, but tragic accidents are not random acts of nature. Now public rage focused on the negligence of officials who allowed dangerous cargo to sit on a dock for years.
The blast, so powerful it could be felt more than 150 miles away in Cyprus, shattered windows miles away and registered on seismographs, shaking on the earth as strongly as a 3.3-magnitude earthquake. Shock waves ripped the facades from every building in neighbouring districts – and behind every shattered window are shattered lives. There are not enough hospital beds or a reliable supply of electricity. Infrastructure for storing and importing many of the city’s essential goods has been destroyed, making scarcity of food an imminent threat. A vast crater at the site of the detonation scars the coastline, but deeper still are the wounds to a nation that was already reeling from economic crisis, debilitated by pandemic and weary from political chaos and corruption.
For the people of Beirut it’s a huge catastrophe. There are victims and casualties everywhere. There is absolute shortage of everything. According to Lebanese New Agency, the country would enter two weeks of emergency and measure gave the security forces authority to impose house arrest on anyone involved in the storage of ammonium nitrate at the port while the investigation continues. They have causes that can be investigated, roots in the choices that people have made. Sadly, citizens of Beirut know better than to expect answers. They are familiar with the negligence of a state that has been captured by sectarian interests, running services and utilities as mafia-style racketeering portfolios. A well-regulated port would not have been so vulnerable to industrial accidents of seismic proportions. Authorities in a functional democracy would be scrutinised and held to account. Lebanon has institutions that simulate democracy, but parliament does not represent the people’s interests. Power is parcelled out to maintain a balance between militarised factions, broadly defined by religion.
Vizag the only place in India where Ammonium Nitrate stores
Rising incidents of illegal movement of the explosive chemical, ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3), in the Vizag region has raised doubts over the safety and security of such chemicals during transportation. In the past, the Srikakulam police seized two trucks carrying 44MT ammonium nitrate near Chilakapalem area under Etcherla mandal. The ammonium nitrate was imported to Visakhapatnam Port Trust and the trucks were loaded at the warehouse of a stevedore.
Ammonium nitrate is used in the making of fertilizer. It’s also used in the making of explosives, mainly by mining companies and quarries. It’s also used by terrorists to make improvised explosive devices. Less than half a kg of it is sufficient to make a bomb that can create mayhem. So where does the shipment go after the stevedores have unloaded it? Given the lack of secure storage space, the deadly material is despatched to warehouses in the industrial area of Mindi in Vizag.
Mindi is home to major industries like the HPCLVisakha refinery, Hindustan Zinc Limited, and Bharat Heavy Plates and Vessels (BHPV). Residential areas like VUDA Colony, Janata Colony, Labour Colony and the employees’ quarters of BHPV and Hindustan Zinc lie within a radius of 2 km. Storing vast quantities of ammonium nitrate in the heart of Mindi puts the lives of lakhs of people at risk. Vizag citizen activists say that officials are, shockingly, turning a blind eye to this even as shipping agents violate norms relating to the handling of the deadly shipments. Import of the ammonium nitrate has been increasing at the Vizag port.
Sohan Hatangadi, noted environmentalist raised pertinent questions: “Is Vizag learning lessons over Beirut port Blast? “How much is stored? How is it transported and where? What are the safety measures?” For decades, concerned Vizagites have asked these questions. The information should be out in the public domain. If it is small, safely stored quantity, we need not worry, but if we are not careful, we could be next!,” he said. The point to remember is that 2,750 tonnes of NH4NO3 ripped apart Beirut; how many tones Vizag stores?
Import it mainly from the former Soviet countries and local the shipping agent is handling the cargo. The Visakhapatnam Port Trust (VPT) allows these imports but storage in bulk within the port premises is not allowed. This followed new norms brought in by the Union government after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. Importers are therefore required to handle the substance in small quantities and only in bagged form. While issuing the stringent norms, the government allowed a one-year timeframe to develop storage facilities and safety precautions ports. Presently, only one sole agent is unloading the chemical in bulk at the Vizag port and shifting it to godowns in Mindi, 20 km away. As per storage rules, no more than 3 tons of ammonium nitrate can be stored in any port facility in India, maintaining a minimum distance of 8 m from the compound wall. Outside of the ports, a maximum of 5000 tons is permitted per godown.
Forum for A Better Visakha convener E A S Sarma, a former Union energy secretary, says numerous complaints about the import, storage and sale of ammonium nitrate have been submitted to the National Security Adviser (NSA), the Union home minister, Union home secretary, the state’s DGP and other top officials. Mr. Sarma who has raised the issue of the dangerous substance time and again, said, “The Beirut accident involved only 2,750 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate, whereas in Visakhapatnam alone, at any time, there is a minimum stock of 30,000 tonnes. There are six warehouses that stock the chemicals and from what one could see from the recent LG Polymers gas leak accident, I doubt whether the local authorities are inspecting these warehouses regularly to ensure strict compliance with the storage rules.
He pointed out that the authorities concerned should check if the private companies have emergency accident plans approved by the authorities under the Ammonium Nitrate Rules and the Rules applicable to hazardous substances. In Visakhapatnam, if an accident were to take place, it would impact the HPCL Refinery with dangerous consequences, in addition to impacting the adjacent airport and the nearby thickly populated residential colonies, he stressed. He has suggested again and again that the Home Ministry should direct the States to exercise close surveillance over the import, storage and distribution of Ammonium Nitrate consignments.
Even as the government vowed a swift and thorough investigation into the explosion, outrage swelled in Lebanon over long-term government mismanagement and the role it might have played in the disaster. Sarma had suggested that the trucks carrying the chemical should be fitted with GPS logging devices so that their movement could be tracked closely. He said this was however, not implemented yet. In Visakhapatnam and elsewhere, it was reported in the past that truckloads of the chemicals had disappeared.
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