Lebanese authorities believe the deadly Beirut explosion could be tied to highly explosive ammonium nitrate, which was stored at the port for years.
Those who wonder whether a chemical explosion like the one that leveled the port of Beirut and killed more than 100 could happen in the USA should consider what happened one spring day in 1947 in the port of Texas City, Texas.
Cargo in the hold of the freighter Grandcamp started smoking. Flames erupted, and a blast so powerful that it could be heard more than 100 miles away destroyed the ship, docks and an adjoining Monsanto chemical plant.
The explosion killed more than 500 people – the exact number was hard to determine because many bodies couldn’t be recovered – making it one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. The chemical product that exploded on the ship was the same as the one stored in a Beirut warehouse, ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizer.
The accident underscores the point that U.S. ports aren’t immune to the kind of destruction that was wrought a half a world away in Beirut.
A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4. (Photo: STR, AFP via Getty Images)
In ports, threats come in all forms. Potentially explosive cargo may be petroleum, liquified natural gas, chemicals or something else. Fire or an explosion can occur in a single container or in a supertanker. On land, disaster could strike in a storage facility, a huge refinery or an industrial complex that’s part of the port complex.
Port officials said the public shouldn’t worry. In the USA, transportation of explosive cargoes is covered by myriad federal and state regulations, and those laws are backed by a web of inspection agencies, the Coast Guard chief among them.
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Warehouses like the one in Beirut were torn down at U.S. ports long ago. The emphasis is on moving containers directly from a ship to ground transport as quickly as possible, cutting out the warehouse wait. Warehouses were razed to make way for railroad tracks or other container space.
Officials in two of the nation’s busiest ports said safety is always the top priority.
“We will do whatever we can to mitigate risk,” Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, California, told USA TODAY. “We have a 100% effort to implement appropriate firewalls to mitigate anything that can happen.”
Lebanon’s government has said that the explosion was caused by the detonation of ammonium nitrate stored at the city’s port.
He said the port built a security center to coordinate with the various agencies that have jurisdiction for port security, from the Coast Guard to the FBI, and has two large, modern fireboats. “We are very proud of our safety record, but on the other hand, we’re vigilant,” Cordero said.
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On the opposite coast, Sam Ruda, director of the Port of New York and New Jersey, said his agency approaches hazardous cargo with the same high priority.
“The Port of New York and New Jersey takes dangerous goods extremely seriously,” Ruda said in a statement. “The port has regulations and fire safety protocols in place limiting the types and amounts of those materials that may be stored, used or transferred through port facilities.”
Any cargo considered dangerous is subject to Coast Guard inspection, segregated from other goods and kept in small amounts. The goods must be stored within 500 feet of a fire extinguisher. The port doesn’t take dangerous cargoes in bulk.
Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego in July. (Photo: Denis Poroy, AP)
The hazards that come with ports became national news last month when fire broke out aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard as the amphibious assault ship underwent maintenance at a San Diego pier.
The fire burned for four days, hitting temperatures of 1,000 degrees below deck. Smoke and debris prompted complaints in nearby communities, and samples showed the emissions contained toxic chemicals, the San Diego Union Tribune reported.
Ship explosions cause major damage. The tanker Sansinena blew up in Los Angeles harbor in 1976. The blast broke the ship in two and broke windows in the residential area next to the port, San Pedro. It was felt 20 miles away.
The most deadly ship explosion occurred 103 years ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when a French ammunition ship, the Mont Blanc, blew up after catching fire in a collision with another vessel. The blast during World War I leveled much of the city, killing 1,800 and wounding 9,000.
Texas City’s agony was repeated nearly a century later.
In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in the city killed 15 and injured at least 170.
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