Karachi authorities seek storage details of ammonium nitrate after Beirut blasts


There are generally very strict rules about where ammonium nitrate can be stored.

The Karachi city administration on Saturday approached the port and other authorities in the metropolis and sought details about the storage of ammonium nitrate after massive Beirut explosions that killed over 150 people and injured hundreds others.

Commissioner Karachi Iftikhar Shallwani, In this regard, has written letters to the Deputy Commissioner of the District East, West, South, Malir, Central, Korangi, West and East; chairman Korangi Association of Trade and Industry; chairman of Landhi Association of Trade and Industry; chairman Federal B Area Association of Trade and Industry; chairman North Karachi Association of Trade and Industry and chairman Bin Qasim Association of Trade and Industry and asked them to submit details of storage of ammonium nitrate and other hazardous dual-use precursor chemicals lying with them.

The commissioner has requested them to provide details to his office at the earliest.

The commissioner has asked for the name of industry, factory or company and name of the owner, along with the quantity of ammonium nitrate or other hazardous dual-use precursor chemical, their period of storage and details of safety measures.

The letter has been written in the wake of massive explosions in Beirut which rocked its capital city Lebanon. It is believed that 2,750 metric tons of explosive ammonium nitrate stored at a warehouse caused the explosion.

Why ammonium nitrate is dangerous

When combined with fuel oils, ammonium nitrate creates a potent explosive widely used in the construction industry, but also by insurgent groups such as the Taliban for improvised explosives.

However, under normal storage conditions and without very high heat, it is difficult to ignite ammonium nitrate, Jimmie Oxley, a chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island, told AFP.

“If you look at the video (of the Beirut explosion), you saw the black smoke, you saw the red smoke — that was an incomplete reaction,” she said.

“I am assuming that there was a small explosion that instigated the reaction of the ammonium nitrate — whether that small explosion was an accident or something on purpose I haven’t heard yet.”

That is because ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer — it intensifies combustion and allows other substances to ignite more readily, but is not itself very combustible.

For these reasons, there are generally very strict rules about where it can be stored: for example, it must be kept away from fuels and sources of heat.

In fact, many countries in the European Union require that calcium carbonate to be added to ammonium nitrate to create calcium ammonium nitrate, which is safer.

In the United States, regulations were tightened significantly after the Oklahoma City attack.

Under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, for example, facilities that store more than 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) of ammonium nitrate are subject to inspections.

Despite its dangers, Oxley said legitimate uses of ammonium nitrate in agriculture and construction have made it indispensable.

“We wouldn’t have this modern world without explosives, and we wouldn’t feed the population we have today without ammonium nitrate fertilizer,” she said.

“We need ammonium nitrate, we just need to pay good attention to what we’re doing with it.”

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