The massive ammonium nitrate explosion that killed at least 135 people in Beirut was sparked by the same deadly chemical that is stockpiled across Australia.
The chemical is stored in 170 sites in South Australia alone with a huge supply also in Newcastle, north of Sydney.
The explosion in Lebanon’s capital reportedly came from a facility that had 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which has brought attention to the possible dangers of Australia’s own stockpiles.
Of great concern is the massive ammonium nitrate hoard at the Orica facility, north of Sydney, which is 3km from Newcastle’s CBD and just 800 metres from residents in Stockton.
Up to 12,000 tonnes are stored at Orica’s Kooragang Island factory, which produces 430,000 tonnes each year.
More than 300 local residents were campaigning to relocate the plant or reduce the stockpiles long before Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut.
‘It would be catastrophic for Newcastle if it went up for sure,’ Stockton Community Action Group spokesman Keith Craig told the Today Show on Thursday.
‘The likelihood is low but if you look at a risk profile, if it ever did happen, the outcome would be catastrophic.’
He renewed calls for the plant to reduce the amount of ammonium nitrate and consider having a separate storage away from communities.
‘It really brings it back to the community, to the regulators and government, just how powerful this explosive is and it is a real concern,’ Mr Craig said.
‘Accidents can happen and in this case if an accident did happen it would be catastrophic. It is not the right place for this sort of plant.
The company insists stringent protocols are maintained to ensure the product is being managed safely.
‘It’s important to note that there has not been a single incident involving the storage of ammonium nitrate in the Kooragang Island site’s 51-year history,’ an Orica spokesman said.
The ammonium nitrate is stored in areas of the complex which are fire resistant and built from non-flammable materials.
‘There are no flammable sources within designated exclusion zones around these areas,’ the spokesman said.
Workplace safety watchdog SafeWork SA said the state’s 170 licensed locations that stored the chemical were all low risk.
‘All of the ammonium nitrate storages in the state are heavily regulated, heavily controlled and we monitor the condition of the ammonium nitrate stores,’ SafeWork SA chemicals, hazards and explosive materials expert Natasha Wright told the ABC.
She added the state’s largest stockpile has around 270 tonnes, less than 10 per cent of the amount that sparked the blast in Beirut.
Other sites contained as little as half a kilogram are in remote locations.
‘All of those sites have been inspected by … our agency [and] we’ve reviewed their safety and security management plans,’ Ms Wright assured.
Small quantities of ammonium nitrate are used to fertilising crops with larger amounts utilised for mining.
Since 2006, anyone who buys, transports, uses, or stores the chemical must have SafeWork SA licence.
Ms Wright said ammonium nitrate is ‘a low risk for storage’ under safe and strict conditions.
‘I can’t imagine what may have occurred in Beirut for such an accident to occur,’ she added.
Explosives expert Tony Richards called for stockpiles to be relocated away from population centres such as Newcastle, NSW’s second largest city home to more than 322,000.
While he was confident in safety practices of the companies were stringent, he says there’s always very small possibility of something going horribly wrong.
‘If you went to the company a couple of days beforehand and said what’s the chance of the plant blowing up and killing lots of people and causing billions of dollars of damage, they would say no chance,’ Mr Richards told the Sydney Morning Herald.