Ammonium stockpile under spotlight in NSW after deadly Beirut chemical blast

Concerns have been raised about the storage of ammonium nitrate in Newcastle. Source: Google Images

Local residents have long raised concerns about a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate near populated areas of Newcastle.

A chemical stockpile in New South Wales is under fresh scrutiny after this week's massive blast in Lebanon's capital that killed at least 135 people. 

Experts believe a giant stockpile of ammonium nitrate is responsible for the explosion that tore through the port in Beirut on Tuesday.

Concerns are now resurfacing about ammonium nitrate being held at a facility in Newcastle, NSW believed to be up to four times larger than the Beirut stockpile.

Although community campaigners are calling for the Newcastle stockpile to be moved away from residents, one chemical engineer says there is little to worry about if the chemicals are being looked after properly.

The Kooragang Island plant in the Port of Newcastle is run by mining company Orica and is believed to stockpile between 6,000 and 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Lebanese authorities have said they believe 2,750 tonnes was involved in the deadly blast.

The facility in Newcastle is only three kilometres from the city's CBD and 800 metres from houses in the suburb of North Stockton.

Chemical engineer and community campaigner Keith Craig has long been warning about the risk of an explosion at the facility.

“It's a totally inappropriate place to have such a dangerous material produced and stored, and it's something we've been complaining about for many, many years,” he told the ABC on Thursday.

But Orica, the company running the storage facility said residents have nothing to be concerned about.

In a statement to SBS News a company spokesman said “you have to be extremely negligent with ammonium nitrate for it to explode”.

A helicopter at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut.
A helicopter at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut.
Getty

While noting the storage in Beirut was apparently without safety protocols and with fireworks stored nearby, Orica said its Australian operations are highly regulated and regularly inspected by authorities.

“This cannot be compared to the responsible and heavily regulated production, storage and transport of ammonium nitrate by Orica and others in Australia,” the spokesman said.

“Ammonium nitrate storage areas at Kooragang Island are fire-resistant, are built exclusively from non-flammable materials, and we have designated exclusion zones around these areas."

The company added that there had not been a single incident at the site in its 51-year history.

Dr Gabriel Da Silva, senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne, said given Australia had such high safety standards around the storage of hazardous chemicals, Newcastle residents did not need to be too worried.

“If it’s stored correctly and handled correctly, it’s not that dangerous. It doesn’t burn and it’s quite hard to make it explode. But obviously, under the wrong circumstances it can have some very devastating and tragic consequences,” he told SBS News.

He said the chemicals would ideally be stored some distance from population centres but the most important thing was that it was looked after.

“Orica have made and used ammonium nitrate in Australia for a long time with a good track record, and we do have quite stringent regulations about the storage and handling of hazardous goods,” he said.

“So I think that it's relatively safe."

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