ICHCA warns of another Beirut disaster waiting to happen

TERMINAL operators around the globe are reassessing their safety procedures following the August 4 Beirut explosion which killed around 200 people and injured more than 6,000, making many thousands more homeless

26 August 2020 - 19:00
TERMINAL operators around the globe are reassessing their safety procedures following the August 4 Beirut explosion which killed around 200 people and injured more than 6,000, making many thousands more homeless.

The International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA) told UK's Container News that it had completed a survey on port operations regarding the handling of containerised dangerous goods for a private client, so the results remain confidential, before the tragedy in Lebanon.

Head of ICHCA, Richard Brough, said: 'Large terminal operators take things seriously, but smaller terminal companies profess to have robust systems in place, but it's not the case, another Tianjin is waiting to happen all over the world.'

Tianjin in northern China was the last major incident with dangerous goods, in August 2015 two explosions rocked the port area of Tianjin with the second blast reportedly caused by 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Over 170 people were killed in that event, many were firefighters who had no idea what chemical they were dealing with. Many more people were injured in the incident.

The regulations are there, said Mr Brough, but they are not enforced uniformly and in some regions of the world those regulations are ignored. 'No-one is learning the lessons,' he said, pointing out that he had visited ports and terminals, without naming any of the facilities, in the course of the recent survey ICHCA had conducted.

According to an excellent report from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), 'The causes of the disaster appear to be tied to bureaucratic ineptitude. Just two weeks before the warehouse exploded, Lebanon's president received an urgent report from the country's security services warning him that the situation was critically dangerous.'

Jurisdictions where regulations are adhered to would not allow a situation such as this to develop. Mr Brough believes that 'Europe, the USA, Australia and China have stringent regulations governing hazardous cargoes, but some people are ignoring them, while the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) code is fully legislated and followed, there are no land-based regulations.'

In effect he conditions that allowed Tianjin and Beirut to happen remain the same. It is the 'interface' between regulations at sea and on land, which has also concerned Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club's risk management director, who says that each modal sector has regulations governing the handling of dangerous cargoes.

However, with the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee regulations set out in MSC1/Circ1216, which outlines the rules for vessels with container loads of hazardous material, the circular makes the distinction between, 'keeping' dangerous goods and 'storing' them.

'Dangerous cargoes temporarily in the port area as part of the transport chain are not considered as being stored as their presence is solely concerned with awaiting loading onto and further onward movement by another mode of transport. Because this is an operation covered by the Recommendations, the term 'keeping' is included in the overall definition of handling. Storage, which involves the holding of substances for an indeterminate period not directly involved with the transportation process, is considered to be outside the scope of these Recommendations and has been excluded from the definitions,' reads the 2007 circular.

For Storrs-Fox this has left a gap in the regulatory safety net which can leave container loads of abandoned cargoes stranded at ports and terminals, often because financial situations have seen companies go bust or there is a dispute between consignee and consignor.

According to the IMO circular: 'Regulatory authorities may wish to regulate the storage of such substances but that would be achieved by other regulations unconnected with the transportation process.'

Incredibly, the definitions leave a gap into which dangerous cargoes can fall. And, if cargo is then detained, for whatever reason in some cases container can sit on the terminal hard standing for years with operators and authorities forgetting they are there. This did not happen in Beirut, the authorities wereaware of it.

Such events can, along with poor training and a lack of emergency service drills to co-ordinate responses in the event of an incident it can leave ports vulnerable says Storrs-Fox. A theme that was also visited by Mr Brough who said he had walked through terminals where some hazardous materials were stored adjacent to other chemicals, inappropriately, or where chemical tanks were stored just 500 metres from a school and housing estate.

ICHCA and the TT Club are looking to change the regulations governing the storage of hazardous cargoes at ports, but the two concede it may take some time for an international regulation to be designed, recognised and ratified.

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