Residents in and around Newcastle, Australia, have expressed fears about the town’s vast stockpile of ammonium nitrate – which could be almost four times bigger than the amount that exploded in Beirut.
Between 6,000 and 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate is stored at Orica's Kooragang plant in the New South Wales town. Lebanon's Interior Minister said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in the Beirut blast.
The plant is within 800 metres of residents in North Stockton and just three kilometres from Newcastle’s central business district.
Chemical engineer and community campaigner Keith Craig told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that “many people would be killed and injured if we had an accident at Orica”.
“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 said.
Orica told the ABC that safe storage of the chemical is strictly regulated and audited.
Explosives expert Tony Richards told the Sydney Morning Herald that there was enough ammonium nitrate stored at the plant to obliterate Newcastle.
“If that went off, people in Sydney [more than 160km away] would say ‘what the hell was that?’ And the answer would be: it used to be Newcastle,” he said.
The below graphic shows the radius of the blast in Beirut.
While the ammonium nitrate in Lebanon is believed to have been left in an unsecured warehouse, a New South Wales Environmental Protection Authorities spokesperson told the Sydney Morning Herald that Australian storage facilities are subject to strict conditions and regular inspections to ensure compliance.
However, residents have noted that inconsistent standards saw one ammonium nitrate facility moved away from homes in South Australia over safety concerns, while in New South Wales a similar facility is within 500 metres of a nursing home.
A company in Queensland is currently facing a lawsuit over an ammonium nitrate “fireball” that injured eight people in 2014 when a truck transporting the material to South Australia exploded.