Australia Has its Own Ammonium Nitrate Stockpile in Newcastle

As Lebanon begins to pick up the pieces from yesterday’s devastating blast in Beirut, some unnerving news from Newcastle has come to light.

Though the explosion in Beirut is still under investigation, it’s believed to have been caused by 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizers and bomb-making, which had been stored at a port warehouse for six years without safety measures. Apparently Lebanese Customs were aware of the potential danger the stockpile posed, repeatedly requesting its removal by Port Authorities and equating it to ‘a floating bomb.’ Despite mounting concern, nothing was done, and now at least 135 people are dead and a further 5,000 wounded. Many more have been left homeless from the blast, which Beirut’s governor estimates has caused over $3 billion in damage.

As reports of mismanagement began to roll in, Australian-based explosives company, Orica, nervously began typing an official statement. It turns out that the company—who is one of the world’s largest providers of commercial explosives used in the mining industry—have been storing a stockpile of ammonium nitrate up to four times the size of the one in Beirut. Between 6,000 to 12,000 tonnes of the stuff is currently stored at Orica’s Kooragang Island plant in the Port of Newcastle, only three kilometres away from Newcastle’s CBD. Up to 40,000 people live in what could be the ‘blast zone’, if something was to go wrong.

Orica Chemical Plant

In Orica’s statement, they reiterate that they follow strict safety protocols and ensure that the ammonium nitrate storage areas are fire resistant and built exclusively from non-flammable materials, with no flammable sources within designated exclusion zones.

Operations on the Kooragang Island site, which has been in operation for 51 years, are apparently highly regulated to state and federal standards and ‘the site’s safety management systems, security arrangements, and emergency response procedures undergo a strict auditing and verification process by SafeWork NSW.’

The bad stuff

But locals in the Newcastle area have been fighting for Orica’s plant to be closed down for close to a decade, ever since it leaked cancer-causing hexavalent chromium into the air in 2011. It’s also responsible for causing elevated levels of pollution and dangerous PM2.5 particles in Stockton, and was also responsible for a release of arsenic into the Hunter River. At a public hearing nine years ago, then Newcastle Councilor Michael Osborne went as far as to say that the Orica plant should be shut down for being ‘old, inadequately managed, and inappropriately located,’ and referred to over 130 breaches of their licenses in a ten year period. Mmm, with a record like that, what could possibly go wrong?

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