South Australia’s workplace safety watchdog says ammonium nitrate is stored at about 170 locations across South Australia, but that the sites are secure, frequently monitored and pose a low risk.
- The major explosion in Beirut occurred at an ammonium nitrate storage facility
- The chemical is held in storage at about 170 sites around South Australia
- SafeWork SA says it the chemical is heavily regulated to mitigate risk
There is a renewed focus on storage of the chemical in Australia in the wake of the huge and deadly explosion in Beirut.
The blast rocked the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring almost 4,000, flattening much of the city’s port and sending a shock wave that damaged buildings across the city.
The safety of ammonium nitrate was previously highlighted in South Australia in 2013, when concerns were raised about the location of a fertiliser plant at Port Adelaide following another deadly blast in Texas.
SafeWork SA said there are approximately 170 licensed ammonium nitrate storage sites in South Australia, but that it monitors each of the sites and the manner in which the chemical is handled.
“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 said.
Ms Wright said the largest storage facility in SA currently has about 270 tonnes of the chemical, but other sites contained as little as half a kilogram.
“Those stores are limited in nature, but they’re also in remote locations.
“All of those sites have been inspected by … our agency [and] we’ve reviewed their safety and security management plans.”
The facility that exploded in Beirut contained 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
In 2013, the South Australian Government made a deal with fertiliser manufacturer Incitec Pivot to move its plant away from the heart of Port Adelaide.
Locals, SafeWork SA and SA Health raised concerns it posed an unacceptable risk to residents of a proposed major development there.
Two years later, the ammonium nitrate had still not shifted, but the company moved its operations to a location further from the centre of Port Adelaide in 2018.
Chemical kept away from homes
Ms Wright said small quantities of ammonium nitrate are used generally for fertilising crops, whereas larger amounts were used for mining.
She said storage of ammonium nitrate was kept at a safe distance from roads, churches, childcare centres and homes, and that only drivers with appropriate security clearance were permitted to transport it.
“[It is] driven on known transport routes that they identify in their security management plan,” she said.
“Measures are in place to ensure that the ammonium nitrate is secured during the journey.”
Ms Wright said regulations were enacted in 2006 in SA, forcing anyone who buys, transports, uses, or stores the chemical to first apply for a licence to do so from SafeWork SA.
But she said that under safe and strict conditions, ammonium nitrate is “a low risk for storage”.
Meanwhile, concerns have been raised about an ammonium nitrate stockpile, in Newcastle in NSW, which is up to four times larger than that held in the Beirut facility.
“That factory is only three kilometres from Newcastle’s CBD and only 800 metres from North Stockton residents,” chemical engineer and community campaigner Keith Craig said.
“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.”
The company that manages the facility, Orica, said thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate is stored there on any given day, but stringent practices are in place to ensure its safe storage and handling.