How 2,750 Tons of Deadly Ammonium Nitrate Got Stuck in a Beirut Warehouse

Beirut woke up to mourning and devastation today following a huge explosion at the city's port on Tuesday. At least 100 were killed, with more than 4,000 wounded and some 250,000 people left homeless.

The international community is mobilizing to send medical assistance and aid to Lebanon, which was already struggling to handle the coronavirus pandemic while grappling with hyperinflation, unemployment, the shortage of basic goods and intractable political crises. Tuesday's explosion is another weight on a city and a country well-versed in tragedy and hardship.

The exact series of events that led to the enormous explosion, which created seismic waves equivalent of a magnitude 3.3 earthquake, remains unclear. It appears to have involved fireworks stored in a warehouse close to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate—an explosive fertilizer—confiscated from a ship several years ago.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun told reporters soon after the disaster that the failure to deal with the stored ammonium nitrate was "unacceptable," promising the "harshest punishment" for those found culpable. Authorities have launched an investigation and the committee is scheduled to present its findings within five days.

The explosion sparked a wave of speculation online, with theories ranging from domestic sabotage to Israeli airstrikes and even a nuclear detonation. President Donald Trump was among those suggesting the explosion was caused by a bomb—though presented no evidence to support his claim, which was dismissed by Lebanese officials.

But the real cause appears to be the systemic corruption and negligence that has long plagued Lebanon, with officials cutting corners and enriching themselves at the cost of the people's safety.

Al Jazeera reported that senior Lebanese officials knew the ammonium nitrate had been stored in Hangar 12 of Beirut's port for several years, and that its presence there risked a devastating accident. But officials at the port—infamous for the amount of public funds stolen over the decades—failed to deal with the threat.

The ammonium nitrate was confiscated from a Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged cargo ship—the Rhosus—in September 2013 when the tanker docked in Beirut after experiencing technical difficulties. The Rhosus had been on its way from Georgia to Mozambique, according to the ship-tracking website Fleetmon.

Ammonium nitrate is commonly used for fertilizer because its high levels of nitrogen are beneficial for plant growth. It is also a central component in mining explosives, and these qualities have prompted terrorists to use the product in homemade bombs—including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Lawyers at the Beirut-based Baroudi Legal firm represented the boat's Russian and Ukrainian crewmembers, who were stranded on the ship after it docked. Lebanese officials prevented the vessel from sailing elsewhere and it was eventually abandoned by its crew and its owners. The explosive cargo was then moved to Hanger 12, which sat close to the country's main north-south highway.

The years following saw multiple efforts to address the dangerous cargo. In 2014, then-director of Lebanese Customs Shafik Merhi wrote to an unnamed "Urgent Matters judge" seeking a solution. Customs officials sent at least five more letters over the next three years, Al Jazeera reported, asking for the ammonium nitrate to be addressed.

Proposed solutions included exporting the material, handing it to the Lebanese army or selling it to a Lebanese explosives company. A 2016 letter noted that officials had received no reply from judges.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," the letter read. It too received no reply.

In 2017, Lebanese Customs Administration director Badri Daher started his tenure by writing to a judge again about the ammonium nitrate. He stressed the "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there."

But almost three years later, the ammonium nitrate was still in Hanger 12. Videos from nearby showed the enormous explosion—felt some 100 miles away on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus—and subsequent shockwave tearing through downtown Beirut.

Lebanon shares its border with conflict-torn Syria and Israel, with whom the country is technically still at war. The seaport was vital for the imports that account for much of the country's food and other basic goods, but now sits almost entirely destroyed.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Tuesday that the explosion was a "great national disaster" and promised that "all those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price."

But Lebanese people too will pay the price for the negligence and apathy of the country's political elite, set to face yet more uncertainty and hardship as the beleaguered nation struggles to get back on its feet.

Beirut, port, Lebanon, explosion, ammonium nitrate, accident
A Lebanese army helicopter flies over the destroyed port of Beirut on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images/Getty