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Ships carrying ammonium nitrate to Singapore, port storage facilities inspected as part of regulations: MPA

The dangers of the explosive material have been in the spotlight since the Beirut blast on Aug 4 which killed more than 170 people.

Ships carrying ammonium nitrate to Singapore, port storage facilities inspected as part of regulations: MPA

File photo of a port in Singapore. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

SINGAPORE: Ships passing through Singapore ports occasionally carry ammonium nitrate, said the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) on Wednesday (Aug 12) as it outlined how the explosive chemical is regulated for safety.

Vessels carrying ammonium nitrate have to inform port authorities of their cargo before arrival. They will only be able to unload or store the material when approval is given, MPA said in response to queries from CNA.

"MPA carries out inspections on-board vessels to ensure that regulations are being complied with," it added. 

The dangers of ammonium nitrate have been in the spotlight since Aug 4 when 2,750 tonnes of the chemical set off a massive explosion in Beirut's port area. More than 170 people were killed, 6,500 injured and 300,000 left homeless.

An aerial view of parts of the devastated Beirut port taken on Aug 7 shows the crater caused by the colossal explosion three days earlier of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse. (Photo: AFP)

Reports said the ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in 2013 aboard a cargo ship that had experienced technical problems. The ship was inspected, banned from leaving and the chemical was unloaded.

Many questions remain as to why a huge shipment of the chemical was allowed to be left at a port warehouse for so long, but Lebanon Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed the blast on unsafe storage.

The warehouse had reportedly caught fire from maintenance work done on Aug 4.

READ: Lebanon's leaders warned in July about explosives at port: Documents

READ: Beirut's accidental cargo: How an unscheduled port visit led to disaster

According to United Nations trade data, Singapore imported at least 1,665 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in 2019, from countries like Germany, Malaysia and Thailand.

"As a major transhipment hub, there are vessels in Singapore port that carry ammonium nitrate from time to time," MPA said.

READ: Ammonium nitrate: Fertiliser behind many industrial accidents

Ammonium nitrate is a crystal-like white solid commonly used to make agricultural fertiliser. It can also be mixed with fuel oils to create an explosive used in mining and construction.

But the chemical, usually transported by sea, has more nefarious uses. Militants have in the past used it to make bombs. In 2001, there was a plot to hit targets in Singapore using truck bombs rigged with ammonium nitrate.

SHIPS CARRYING AMMONIUM NITRATE ARE INSPECTED

In Singapore, ammonium nitrate is classified as a Dangerous Good. This means all vessels transporting it here must comply with the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code.

The code covers matters like proper labelling and stowage segregation, MPA said. An MPA port marine circular issued in January 2019 indicated that ammonium nitrate on board ships must be packed in containers.

READ: India seizes about 700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, chemical that caused Lebanon blast

MPA said that an owner, agent or master of arriving ships carrying dangerous goods or intending to load them in the port must submit a Dangerous Goods Notification not less than 12 hours before the vessel’s arrival or loading.

This notification can be submitted through online maritime portals like Portnet, JP-Online or Marinet, it said.

"Until permission from the Port Master has been obtained, no loading or unloading of such cargo from the vessel should take place," it added.

"Similarly, approval from terminal operators needs to be obtained for the temporary storage of dangerous goods within the terminal."

Apart from MPA inspections on board vessels, the authority said the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and Singapore Civil Defence Force also conduct safety management audits and inspections at storage premises in port terminals.

HANDLERS OF AMMONIUM NITRATE MUST NOT HAVE CRIMINAL RECORD

The police also regulate the local import and export of ammonium nitrate as an explosive precursor under the Arms and Explosives Act.

Those who wish to manufacture, store, deal in, possess, import or export ammonium nitrate require a licence under Arms and Explosives Act, the police told CNA.

READ: Commentary: What happened in Beirut can easily happen elsewhere

Licence applicants who wish to manufacture, store, deal in or possess the chemical must be a Singaporean or permanent resident, as well as a business stakeholder registered with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

Those who will directly handle the chemical must not have a criminal record, and they need to have relevant experience and knowledge in the handling of explosive precursors.

Applicants are also required to submit training records and certifications for staff handling the chemical, safety and security plans for its handling, transportation and storage, as well as a write-up on the actual processes where the chemical is used.

STRICT CCTV RULES FOR STORAGE PREMISES 

When it comes to storing ammonium nitrate, SPF said licensees are only permitted to keep a prescribed quantity as approved in their licence.

They should also comply with the chemical's Safety Data Sheet, which is provided by manufacturers to ensure the safe use and handling of hazardous chemicals under a global standard.

READ: Beirut blast: Singapore Red Cross to contribute S$50,000 to relief effort

This is on top of a set of security measures for storage premises, including installing closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) that cover entrances and exits leading to and from the premises as well as the actual storage area inside.

According to an SPF document on licensing conditions, the CCTVs must be switched on and record in colour at all times, capture the faces of those who enter and exit, and store recordings for at least 30 days.

Licensees must ensure that ammonium nitrate which has expired and is unsafe for storage is immediately removed and disposed. SPF provides a list of three suitable disposal companies.

A chemistry professor quoted by the BBC said ammonium nitrate that lies around for a long time begins to decay, absorb moisture and become a large rock. This makes it more dangerous as any reaction with fire will be more intense.

ADEQUATE VENTILATION, FIRE SAFETY MEASURES A MUST

The police said they could impose additional conditions depending on the type and quantity of explosive precursor that will be stored.

"The police also take into consideration the suitability of premises in storing the proposed type and quantity of explosive precursors safely and securely," SPF added.

"Licensees are required to implement security measures such as those to track the inventory of explosive precursors and control access to their storage premises at all times."

A Lebanese youth wrapped in the national flag looks at the damaged grain silos at Beirut's port, where a huge chemical explosion devastated large swathes of the capital. (Photo: AFP)

Storage premises should also be well-ventilated and away from flammable or combustible substances, the police said, adding that licensees must have "robust" fire safety measures in place to mitigate the effects of any incident.

"The police perform regular inspections to ensure compliance, and will not hesitate to impose regulatory sanctions against errant licensees," they added.

Source: CNA/hz(gs)

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