The Walloon region’s minister for the environment, Céline Tellier (Ecolo), has given orders to her administration to carry out a thorough audit of industrial plants in the region using ammonium nitrate.
The explosion that took place in the Lebanese capital Beirut earlier this week was caused by the ignition of an enormous stock of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate kept in the port area against the instructions of the city authorities.
Meanwhile in Antwerp, the port authority has given an assurance that the procedures in place are being strictly followed. At the same time, the province of Antwerp has had specially-trained experts on dangerous substances on duty since 2001, when a fuel depot caught fire in Ravels.
Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is a chemical compound used mainly in agriculture as a component of fertiliser (PNK), but is also used in the manufacture of explosives. It was a part of the bomb that was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Safety measures to be applied to dangerous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate are governed in the EU by three so-called Seveso directives, named after the town north of Milan that was the scene of a major chemical accident in 1976.
All companies that deal with the substances listed in the directives are meant to be strictly controlled regarding safe stockage, emergency procedures and the effects on the surrounding area, both human and environmental.
“It is essential for us to be able to quickly verify that an accident such as the one which unfortunately happened in Beirut cannot occur in Wallonia,” Tellier said. “I have therefore asked the administration for an analysis of the risks relating to the Seveso companies using or storing ammonium nitrate in Wallonia within the shortest possible time”.
One such company is Yara, based in Saint-Ghislain near Mons. Yara makes fertiliser and other chemical products, and is covered by Seveso rules on the stockage of ammonium nitrate.
“There are for example rules on temperature, to prevent a risk of decomposition, which could have serious consequence,” explained risk manager Benjamin Yannart.
The compound would never be kept for more than six months by Yara, the company said. And the quantities that may be stored together are limited.
“We have what we call cubicles, each of which cannot contain more than 400 tonnes of ammonium nitrate,” Yannart said.
Over in the port of Antwerp, ammonium nitrate is kept “under very strict safety conditions,” the port authority said.
“My sincere condolences to the families and friends of the many victims who have been affected by this terrible explosion. Our thoughts go out to them,” said Annick De Ridder (N-VA), city councillor for port matters, in a press release.
“The situation in Beirut is by no means comparable to the port of Antwerp. There are strict safety standards here, and it is unthinkable that such a product would be stored for years in an amount that corresponds to the transshipment volumes in Flanders over a whole year.”
The province’s specialists, two of whom are on duty at any one time, were introduced by former governor Camille Paulus after a serious fire in Ravels in 2001 destroyed a fuel depot stocking 250,000 litres of fuel oil, 70,000 litres of diesel, 60,000 litres of petroleum and a stock of oil and gas.
At first, the specialists — who are drawn from the fire brigade, the civil protection service and the chemical industry — had to be trained in the Netherlands, because no such training was available in Belgium. They are now educated at the university of Antwerp.
Koen Vanderzwalm, a fire officer, is one of the specialists, and watched the images from Beirut.
“It gave me chills, just hallucinatory,” he said. “We have groups on social media where we discuss such disasters and incidents, to learn from them.”
Could it also happen here? “The situation is difficult to compare. The safety measures are highly regarded here. We know that BASF stores ammonium nitrate here according to very strict safety procedures.”