One of the world’s leading experts on ammonium nitrate told The Daily Telegraph: “It’s only a matter of time before something similar happens again.”
Vyto Babrauskas, a fires and explosives forensics expert based in New York, said that there were tens of thousands sites around the world where the chemical was stored unsafely. He carried out an investigation into a disaster seven years ago in West, Texas where 15 died.
About 2,750 tonnes ignited to devastate Beirut on Tuesday. In the UK, it is legal to store up to 1,250 tonnes. In the Texas disaster, only 30 tonnes went up.
Ammonium nitrate, stable when stored properly, is used in mining to aid explosions or as a fertiliser in farming. The major incidents have all been associated with agricultural use.
Dr Babrauskas said: “There have been 70 major incidents in 100 years. They were all down to fires and poor storage. The solution is simple: store it in non-combustible buildings, and ensure there is nothing else in the storage area.”
Another option is to combine the ammonium nitrate with calcium. It still works as a fertiliser, but is safer to transport. Half a dozen countries, including Germany, favour this approach.
In the aftermath of the Beirut catastrophe, Australians were first to voice fears they might be next. Up to 12,000 tonnes of the chemical are stored at the explosives giant Orica's Kooragang plant in Newcastle, New South Wales.
Explosives expert Tony Richards told the Sydney Morning Herald that there was enough ammonium nitrate stored at the plant to obliterate Newcastle.“If that went off, people in Sydney [more than 160km away] would say ‘what the hell was that?’ And the answer would be: it used to be Newcastle,” he said.
But Dr Babruaskias said storage where the ammonium nitrate was earmarked for use as an explosive was generally of a much higher standard. There had been no incidents in those circumstances, he said.
Environmentalists in France pointed to Yara, a fertiliser and chemical company, which operates a facility that can store about 20,000 tons in Ambès, near Bordeaux. That is more than seven times the amount stored in Beirut.
Jacky Bonnemains, head of the Robin des Bois environmental group, said: “With the use of ammonium nitrate in farming, it is present everywhere: in large quantities in factory or port warehouses, but also in farm cooperatives, farms, on ships and transported on roads.”
In Chennai, south India, there were checks under way on 700 tonnes discovered in a warehouse at the port. It has been there for at least five years.
Dr Babrauskas said: “We will be here again. We refuse to learn the lessons.”