Enlarge /. A view of the port of Beirut on August 13 after a fire in a warehouse filled with explosives resulted in massive explosions on August 4.
Aysu Bicer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Lebanese officials knew that more than half of the sacks of a 2,750-ton supply of ammonium nitrate that caused a deadly explosion in Beirut were damaged six years ago, but took no action to dispose of the chemical.
In a 2014 inspection report by Beirut Port Authorities, viewed by the Financial Times, the chemical was identified as an "explosive" and found that 1,950 of the 2,750 1-tonne bags filled with the chemical were "torn" . Inventory photos taken the following year, also seen by the FT, show the huge sacks that appear to be haphazardly piled on top of each other and ammonium nitrate leaking from large cracks in the industrial bags.
The evidence will heighten concerns that neglect and poor management were the main culprits in the port explosion, which killed more than 170 people and devastated the capital. Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed "political corruption" for the tragedy when he resigned on Monday.
The ammonium nitrate, which can be used in fertilizers and as explosives, was stored in the port of Beirut on the northern tip of the capital for six years after the Lebanese authorities seized the cargo.
Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at UCL, University of London, said that ammonium nitrate, made as small white balls called prills, is stored in bulk for a long time, absorbs moisture, gradually crystallizes, expands and "condenses." like a big stone. "
This makes it a "charged bomb" with no detonator. An initial fire in the port, captured through videos posted on social media, may have provided the trigger, he said.
"The bags may have been damaged when they were dumped, but chances are they were damaged because the ammonium nitrate crystallized and expanded, and the bags likely came into contact with each other, creating a continuous solid mass," she said Sella said. “It makes it more dangerous and makes it easier for the explosion to move through the material. That makes it a much more intense explosion – it all goes up at once. "
He added it was "a high priority" to dispose of ammonium nitrate when it was damaged.
Enlarge /. Women walk past a damaged car on August 13, more than a week after the explosions in the port of Beirut. Getty's proposed caption describes the streets of Beirut as "just like war zones with ruined buildings, ruined streets, smelly trash strewn almost everywhere".
Aysu Bicer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The Lebanese authorities, who are investigating the explosion, have yet to explain why it was stored in the port near the heart of Beirut for so long.
Adib Ibrahim, chemical engineer at Geoflint, a Lebanese engineer-geo-environment consultancy, said that after six months, the chemical "should have been classified as hazardous waste" and shipped to another country capable of being toxic Dispose of waste.
If this was not possible, the ammonium nitrate would have had to be "deactivated / decomposed" by heating above 169 ° C before it was "sealed and taken to a designated landfill," said Ibrahim.
The ammonium nitrate was dumped in the port of Beirut in 2014 after a ship sailing from Georgia to Mozambique ran into trouble in the Mediterranean. The Rhosus and crew docked in Beirut, where they were embroiled in months of litigation over debts and unpaid fees related to the ship.
Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, which specializes in explosives for commercial use, said it ordered the chemical from Savaro Ltd, a UK-registered company based in Cyprus. FEM said it only paid for the freight on delivery.
"This was a standard order of material that we use in our business and that has always been diligent in meeting all legal requirements and best international practices," said the Maputo-based company.
Ammonium nitrate is produced in various grades, with the higher nitrogen content for explosives and the lower purity for fertilizers. The stocks in the port consisted of almost 35 percent nitrogen, said a customs chief of the Lebanese army at the end of 2015, according to a leaked official letter.
Sella said the nitrogen content was "explosive grade".
"It had to be treated with great respect," he said.
Enlarge /. A man tries to attach a power cable to the damaged roof of a block of flats overlooking the port of Beirut on August 13, 2020.
Chris McGrath / Getty Images
It was not immediately possible to contact Savaro, who does not appear to have a website. The final UK office is on a short residential street in East London. There were no company signs on the building, a locked metal security gate covered the front door, and no one answered when the FT visited the address.
The Lebanese "emergency court", which usually deals with minor civil and commercial cases, ruled in mid-2014 that the ammonium nitrate should be unloaded from the sinking ship and stored in the port of Beirut, out of concern that its "dangerous" cargo this could contaminate the ocean and cause environmental damage, according to FT records.
The court pointed out that the Ministry of Public Works and Transport was responsible for storing the goods in an "appropriate place" and that it was not responsible for selling the ship or its contents. All public works ministers since 2013 are to be questioned as part of the explosion investigation, a government spokesman said.
In January 2015, Joseph Kareh, a Lebanese lawyer acting on behalf of Savaro, wrote to the Urgent Affairs Court asking it to investigate the condition of the ammonium nitrate bags. The letter seen by the FT states that there are storage fees for Savaro for the ammonium nitrate.
The court then commissioned a report from a chemical expert, which also mentioned that 1,950 bags containing the explosives had been damaged but did not identify them as dangerous. Mr. Kareh said he could not comment on the investigation.
The FT was unable to immediately find a record of any further legal action taken by Savaro to recover the cargo after 2015. Records from the UK company show that Savaro has frequently filed accounts as a "dormant" company since its inception in 2006.
Savaro's manager, Greta Bieline, a Lithuanian national, is the director of eight UK-registered companies based in Cyprus, of which only three are still active. It was not possible to contact Ms. Bieline immediately. When contacted by Reuters news agency, she declined to answer questions.
Customs officials, some of whom were arrested for questioning by the Lebanese military police investigating the explosion, said they had issued multiple warnings about the deadly explosives being stored in the port.
If goods are not claimed in port for six months, customs usually have the right to seize them and sell them at auction after a further three months. However, the ammonium nitrate remained in the port warehouse for six years.
The Lebanese authorities appeared to have renewed interest in the inventory earlier this year. In January, the Director General for State Security requested an investigation into ammonium nitrate, according to a government spokesman. The request sparked an exchange of letters between judges and government officials, but the prime minister's office said the neglected chemicals were reported only two weeks before the explosion. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he was also briefed on stocks this year.
A State Security Bureau report sent to the Prime Minister's office weeks before the explosion said the warehouse in which the ammonium nitrate was kept is "intended to contain hazardous materials." The port of Beirut has been criticized for "negligence" in securing the warehouse and at risk of "theft of dangerous materials".
The port authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting from Asmaa al-Omar in Istanbul, Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg, Michael Pooler in London.
© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. No distribution, reproduction or modification.