Recipe for disaster

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A massive explosion that shook Beirut on Tuesday has left at least 135 people dead, 5,000 injured, hundreds missing and displaced more than 300,000 people from their homes. Lebanon’s capital city port, through which most of the goods the country needs – including food – was utterly destroyed. Damage to the Lebanese capital is estimated to be at $3 billion to $5 billion. The Philippine Embassy in Beirut has confirmed the deaths of two Filipinos.

The explosion took place at 6:07 p.m. local time near Beirut’s port and central district, close to many highly-populated areas and tourist sites. The explosion tore through the city, flipping cars, shattering glass and causing some homes to crumble. Homes as far as 10 kilometers away were reportedly damaged.

There were conflicting reports on the cause of the blast but Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the investigation will focus on about 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material that had been stored at a port warehouse over the past six years “without preventive measures.”

A massive shipment of agricultural fertilizer containing ammonium nitrate (AN), a highly volatile compound used in fertilizers and in explosives for mining, was stored at the port of Beirut without safety precautions for years, despite repeated warnings from the Director of Lebanese Customs of the “extreme danger” that it posed.

As we condole and try to support the people of Beirut and Lebanon in whatever way we can, as they struggle to deal with the effects of the massive explosion while grappling with COVID-19, let us also remind our customs and port officials to take stock of the state of hazardous materials stored in ships and warehouses all over the country.

The investigation into the cause of Tuesday’s explosion, if it can be traced to incompetence, is also a real threat here in the Philippines where we recently seem to have an unfortunate surplus of that particular human trait. All we need is a couple of tons of AN or any other hazardous or explosive material lying around, improperly stored and forgotten somewhere, and we have the potential to suffer the same catastrophic fate. Hopefully the Beirut blast has given our officials responsible for keeping a similar situation from happening the eye-opening experience they needed to take their jobs seriously.*


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October 2020