Lebanon was already beset by an economic collapse, anti-government demonstrations and rising coronavirus cases. On Saturday, Beirut’s streets, still littered with debris, filled with seething citizens. People are angry that the government reportedly allowed dangerous chemicals to sit idle in Beirut’s port for years. They tie Tuesday’s tragedy to decades of political corruption and negligence.
This also isn’t the first time that stockpiles of ammonium nitrate have exploded. The dangerous chemical, used in both fertilizer and bombmaking, has previously ignited in deadly incidents, including in the United States, China and France.
Compared with these cases, part of what made the Beirut blast so destructive was both the sheer amount of the chemical and the proximity of the explosion site to a densely populated area. (Lebanese officials said that despite repeated warnings, the ammonium was kept in storage at the port since 2013 after being confiscated in a customs dispute.)
In April 2013, a fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Tex. About 80,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate — a fraction of the amount in the Beirut blast — ignited, according to Houston Public Media. The incident killed 15 people, injured more than 200 and damaged hundreds of homes. Among the dead were 12 first responders. The blast registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake.
In the wake of the disaster, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a plan to prevent similar chemical explosions by strengthening storage and safety procedures. The Trump administration, however, largely annulled the rules in 2019, Houston Public Media reported.
In 2015, ammonium nitrate and other chemicals improperly stored at a port in Tianjin, China, ignited and killed more than 170 people and injured nearly 800, according to Chinese investigators. Twenty-five firefighters who rushed to the scene were unaware of what had caused the blast: Their initial efforts to extinguish the fires subsequently caused another major blast. They all died.
State media later reported that the company running the warehouse had lacked permission to handle dangerous chemicals for much of the year preceding the explosion, The Post reported.
In 2001, 300 tons of ammonium nitrate at a chemical plant in Toulouse, France, combusted and killed at least 31 people and injured about 2,000. Windows across much of the city shattered from the impact. A 2006 investigation found that the chemicals had been improperly allowed to come in contact with others in the plant, the Associated Press reported.