Orica, the company that manufactures and stores large quantities of ammonium nitrate at its facility in the city of Newcastle in NSW, has moved to calm community fears after the massive blast in Beirut.
The company’s plant at Kooragang Island at the Port of Newcastle is said to store 6 000-12 000 tonnes of the chemical on site, which is vastly more than the approximately 2 750 tonnes said to have been responsible for the Lebanese explosion.
Requires extreme negligence to explode
In a statement released on Friday, Orica said ammonium nitrate is chemically inactive and requires extreme negligence for it to explode.
“In Beirut, it appears the product was seized and abandoned in a warehouse for six years, by people who had no experience handling ammonium nitrate or an understanding of the appropriate safety protocols that must be followed. The video footage suggests that fireworks were stored close by, and reports say that a welder started the fire,” Orica noted.
According to its statement, within Australia the production, storage and transport of ammonium nitrate is heavily regulated and monitored.
Regular inspections by the authorities
“In addition to these regulations and our own rigorous approach to safety and risk management, our operations at Kooragang Island are regularly inspected by authorities,” Orica said.
“We also undertake site-wide emergency response exercises, including an annual exercise with the local emergency services.
“Our team is trained to stringent accreditation standards associated [with ammonium nitrate] storage and all ammonium nitrate storage areas at Kooragang Island are fire resistant, built exclusively from non-flammable materials, and have designated exclusion zones around them,” the statement said.
Long-standing community pressure
The company has long been subjected to community pressure over the facility’s location close to the city and some of it suburbs.
In 2011, a public hearing hosted by a New South Wales Upper House committee examining a leak of hexavalent chromium by Orica was told by Newcastle Councillor Michael Osborne: “The Orica plant is old, inadequately managed, inappropriately located and should be shut down and relocated.”
Blast could obliterate city of Newcastle
In a statement posted after the Beirut blast, NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann noted: “I can tell you that this plant has had a long track record of pollution breaches. And it doesn’t just store ammonium nitrate – it produces it! And [it] is located within 4 km of around 44 000 homes and water treatment facilities.”
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, explosives expert Tony Richards said 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.