Beirut explosion destroys grain reserves

Lebanon’s largest grain facility destroyed when ammonium nitrate explodes on eastern Mediterranean dock

REUTERS — Lebanon’s main grain terminal at Port of Beirut was destroyed in an Aug. 4 blast, leaving the nation with less than a month’s reserves of the grain, but enough flour to avoid an immediate crisis, the economy minister said.

Raoul Nehme said a day after the Aug. 4 devastating explosion that Lebanon needed reserves for at least three months to ensure food security and was looking at other storage areas. More than 135 people were killed in the event and thousands injured.

The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, a city torn apart by civil war three decades ago.

The fertilizer that exploded in Beirut’s deadliest peace-time explosion arrived in the Lebanese capital seven years ago on a leaky Russian-leased cargo ship that, according to its captain, should never have stopped there.

“They were being greedy,” said Boris Prokoshev, who was captain of the Rhosus in 2013 when he says the owner told him to make an unscheduled stop in Lebanon to pick up extra cargo.

Boris Prokoshev (R), captain of cargo vessel Rhosus, and boatswain Boris Musinchak pose next to a freight hold loaded with ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, in a summer 2014 photograph. | Reuters photo

The crew was asked to load some heavy road equipment and take it to Jordan’s Port of Aqaba before resuming their journey onto Africa, where the ammonium nitrate was to be delivered to an explosives manufacturer.

But the ship never left Beirut, having tried and failed to safely load the additional cargo before becoming embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute over port fees.

“It was impossible,” Prokoshev said of the operation to try and load the extra cargo. “It could have ruined the whole ship and I said no,” he said by phone from his home in the Russian resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea coast.

Prokoshev said the ship was carrying 2,750 tonnes of the fertilizer from Georgian fertilizer maker Rustavi Azot, and was to be delivered to a Mozambique explosives maker, Fabrica de Explosivos when the order came to divert to Beirut on its way through the Mediterranean.

According to Prokoshev, the ship had been leaking but was seaworthy when it sailed into Beirut in September 2013. However, he said Lebanese authorities paid little attention to the ammonium nitrate, which had been stacked in the hull in large sacks. It was moved to a warehouse on the dock next to the grain terminal after the crew abandoned the ship after several months of legal issues. In the spring of 2018 it sank in the port.

The economy was already in meltdown before the blast, slowing grain imports as the nation struggled to find hard currency for purchases.

“There is no bread or flour crisis,” the minister said. “We have enough inventory and boats on their way to cover the needs of Lebanon on the long term.”

He said grain reserves in Lebanon’s remaining grain terminals stood at “a bit less than a month” but said the destroyed silos had only held 15,000 tonnes of the grain at the time, much less than capacity which one official put at 120,000 tonnes.

Beirut’s port district was a mangled wreck, disabling the main entry point for imports to feed a nation of more than six million people.

Ahmed Tamer, the director of Tripoli port, Lebanon’s second biggest facility, said his port did not have grain storage but incoming cargoes could be taken to warehouses two kilometers away.

Alongside Tripoli, the ports of Saida, Selaata and Jiyeh were also equipped to handle grain, the economy minister said.

“We fear there will be a huge supply-chain problem, unless there is an international consensus to save us,” said Hani Bohsali, head of the importers’ syndicate.

Reserves of flour were sufficient to cover market needs for a month and a half and there were four ships carrying 28,000 tonnes of wheat heading to Lebanon, Ahmed Hattit, the head of the wheat importers union, told Al-Akhbar newspaper.

Lebanon is trying to shift four vessels carrying 25,000 tonnes of flour to the port in Tripoli, one official told LBCI news channel.

An Egyptian-operated ship was unloading 5,000 tonnes of Ukrainian wheat at the port at the time of the blast, but the cargo is “in good condition,” the shipping company’s operations director told Reuters.

The prime minister and presidency have said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.

“It is negligence,” the official source told Reuters, adding that the issue on storing the material safely had come before several committees and judges and “nothing was done” to order the material removed or disposed of.

A still image taken from a drone footage shows the damage two days after an explosion in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 6, 2020. Reuters photouters News Service

The source said a fire had started at port warehouse nine and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored.

Another source close to a port employee said a team that inspected the material six months ago warned it could “blow up all of Beirut” if not removed.

The head of Beirut port and the head of customs both said on Aug. 5 that several letters were sent to the judiciary asking for the dangerous material be removed, but no action was taken.

Port General Manager Hassan Koraytem told OTV the material had been put in a warehouse on a court order, adding that they knew then the material was dangerous but “not to this degree.”

“We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen. We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why,” Badri Daher, director general of Lebanese Customs, told broadcaster LBCI.

Two documents seen by Reuters showed Lebanese Customs had asked the judiciary in 2016 and 2017 to request that the “concerned maritime agency” re-export or approve the sale of the ammonium nitrate, which had been removed from cargo vessel Rhosus to ensure port safety.

One document cited similar requests in 2014 and 2015., an industry network dealing with maritime legal cases, said in a 2015 report that the Rhosus, sailing under a Moldovan flag, docked in Beirut in September 2013 when it had technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique.

It said that, upon inspection, the vessel was forbidden from sailing and shortly afterwards was abandoned by its owners, leading to various creditors coming forward with legal claims.

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” it added.

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