Sussex Port can store 2,800 tonnes of chemical that caused Beirut explosion - but how safe is it?

As the world comes to terms with the tragedy of an explosion in the port of Beirut that reportedly killed at least 137 people and wounded thousands more, attention understandably turns to safety at our own local harbour.

Friday, 7th August 2020, 12:14 pm

Tuesday’s (August 4) blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of the chemical ammonium nitrate being stored unsafely for six years in the Lebanese port.

In 2006, Shoreham Port was granted planning permission, after a highly contentious process, to store 2,800 tonnes of the volatile chemical, which is often used as fertiliser.

Many local residents voiced concerns at the time, including a joint letter to Adur District Council by residents of Western Esplanade, or ‘Millionaire’s Row’, in Hove.

Shoreham Port from the air. Photo by Paul Bowie. SUS-200704-130006001

Signatories included DJ’s Fat Boy Slim and Zoe Ball, as well as Paul McCartney’s estranged wife Heather Mills-McCartney.

At the time, the Herald reported the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said the risk to surrounding residents was high enough for it to advise against consent on safety grounds.

Strict conditions were imposed, such as limiting the amount of time the full quantity of the fertiliser was stored.

The danger involved was made clearer by guidelines such as the port not being allowed to store any between June and August, when the beaches were at their busiest and, in the event of a fire, a 400m exclusion zone would be set up in which fire crews would not be allowed to enter.

This newspaper reported a report to Adur’s planning committee said: “A sustained fire is likely to result in a gas cloud requiring evacuation of a large residential area, and probable closure of the A259 and railway.”

Councillors eventually voted 5-4 in favour of approving the plans.

Tuesdays tragic blast in Beirut damaged buildings up to 6miles away and shockwaves were reported to have been felt more than 100 miles away in Cyprus.

A similar explosion in Shoreham would have caused untold damage as far as Worthing and Brighton along the coast.

Today, Shoreham Port does not handle any chemical products, a spokesman has confirmed, and last handled ammonium nitrate in 2016.

“Our thoughts are with the Port of Beirut during this harrowing time,” said the spokesman. “We would like to reassure our community that the main cargoes through Shoreham Port are timber, steel and aggregates.”

A spokesman for HSE also sent their thoughts to Beirut and provided reassurances that port operators in Britain are subject to some of the most stringent controls in the world.

The spokesman said: “The storage of Ammonium Nitrate in Great Britain is subject to a robust regulatory framework, which considers the hazards posed by storage, product safety and measures to deal with emergencies.

“As with all industrial disasters around the world, we will take on board any significant findings from the investigation as and when they emerge.”

Anyone storing more than 25 tonnes of the chemical must notify HSE and their local fire service and for more than 150 tonnes an additional notification must be sent to local emergency services so they can plan their response to a potential incident.

Planning permission from the local authority is required for anyone intending to store more than 1,250 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, in consultation with HSE.