690 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate stored near Chennai sparks fear of Beirut-like blast; no threat, say Customs

The storage of the chemical in Chennai became a cause for serious concern in the backdrop of the explosion of the chemical in Beirut on Tuesday, which killed 135 people and injured around 4,000

FP Staff August 06, 2020 19:25:39 IST
690 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate stored near Chennai sparks fear of Beirut-like blast; no threat, say Customs

Customs authorities on Thursday sought to allay fears over safety regarding the storage of  nearly 700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at a  container freight near the city after a deadly blast caused by the same chemical in Lebanon's Beirut claimed over 130 lives and wounded another 5,000.

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 even though it was an explosive grade, a Customs official said. For perspective, the explosive involved in Beirut blast was nearly 2,000 tons

However, the consignment, imported from South Korea, was safe and an e-auction process was on to clear it, he said.

The Customs' clarification comes in the wake of reports in a section of 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.

"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 a container freight station in the city 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.

The agency report, however, did not elaborate on the safety arrangements in place to back the official's claim.

Ammonium nitrate (AN), a compound of ammonia and nitrogen, is a highly volatile material used in agricultural fertilizers and bombs. The Environmental Protection Agency says that disasters involving AN are rare but the proper handling and storage of the compound are crucial to avoid any accidents. The compound doesn't burn, but it melts upon supplying heat and emits toxic gases that can cause an explosion.  AN may explode when exposed to a strong shock or when subjected to sustained high temperatures in confinement.

It is also not uncommon for traces of other compounds to be introduced in explosive grade AN to bring down the temperature at which it is triggered.

There are also strict guidelines in place for its handling and storage.

US' Occupational Safety and Health Administration states: "All flooring in storage and handling areas, shall be of noncombustible material or protected against impregnation by ammonium nitrate and shall be without open drains, traps, tunnels, pits, or pockets into which any molten ammonium nitrate could flow and be confined in the event of fire."

"In general, the conditions of AN storage are crucial to the safety and stability of the AN. Materials co-located or stored with AN may play a role in its sensitivity to explosion," EPA said.

But past disasters involving AN have been deadly because often safety protocols were ignored.

According to CNN, one of the worst disasters in US history involving a form of ammonia occurred in April 1947 when a ship loaded with 2,300 US tons (about 2087 metric tons) ammonium nitrate caught fire while docked in Texas City. The resulting explosion destroyed 1,000 buildings and killed nearly 400 people.

Another explosion in 1995 in Oklahoma involved just two US tons (1.8 metric tons) of AN and it killed 169 people and injured 467, the report said.


Earlier during the day, PMK founder S Ramadoss urged the government to take immediate steps to safely dispose of the ammonium nitrate, saying a possible Beirut-like incident should be avoided.

Expressing concern over the reported huge quantity of the seized chemical kept at the freight station since 2015, he said the uncleared substance could be a risk and that it should be safely disposed of and utilised for purposes like composting.

Tuesday's explosion in Lebanon's port city of Beirut killed 135 people and injured about 4,000. Buildings were damaged for miles around the city after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilisers, stored at the facility for six years, reportedly caused the explosion.

With inputs from agencies 

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