When an explosion in Beirut in August 2020 killed over 200 people and injured thousands more, authorities soon discovered that the cause was nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored for years. The disaster made it clear that massive cleanup work was required, and Lebanese officials turned to German specialist companies to begin the massive work.
Höppner Umweltberatung, based in Northern Germany, in cooperation with the heavy lift transport company Combi Lift, examined 59 worrying containers that had been stored in the port for years and then safely shipped them to Germany for safe disposal.
If these containers had caught fire, Beirut would have been “wiped out”, warned the interim port chief Bassem al-Kaisi in November. In February, Heiko Felderhoff, Managing Director of Combi Lift, said that these seemingly forgotten dangerous chemicals were tantamount to a “second Beirut bomb”.
But before the dangerous containers could be shipped, companies had to carefully examine them to get a full inventory of their contents.
Substantial amounts of highly concentrated hydrochloric acid and other corrosive substances such as sulfuric acid, formic acid, caustic soda and hydrofluoric acid were found in the 59 containers, according to Johannes Melcher, chemist at Höppner, who identified the substances and ensured that they can be safely handled and shipped. In addition, acetone and empty cans of methyl bromide were discovered, he says.
Since the acids involved were concentrated, most of this work had to be carried out in full protective suits.
‘Catastrophic conditions’ of the containers
Melcher estimates that the containers had been in the port for between five and 20 years, and many were in terrible condition just because of the time – not because of the explosion. Some of the labels were illegible, so he and his colleagues set up a small mobile laboratory to do some basic chemical research.
After taking stock of the connections in the containers, the German companies developed a work plan for transferring their contents to new containers, starting with the least hazardous materials, to give workers time to train on how to handle the more dangerous ones.
At the time, Lebanon not only had to struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic, but also with considerable economic and political turbulence. “There were numerous problems,” explains Melcher. “First we had to import all of the protective equipment from Germany because it was not available in all of Lebanon.” Electric pumps also had to be imported and could only be used for aqueous acids due to concerns about the safe pumping of organic liquids, so manual hand pumps from Lebanon had to be used for other liquids. “It was impossible to quickly find pumps that would handle all the fluids we had,” says Melcher.
The Lebanese army also provided assistance. “They were the first to find the containers and get the ball rolling for this huge project,” remembers Melcher. They helped by offering mobile infrared spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy services.
The “catastrophic condition” of most of the 59 shipping containers and the ships in them led to complications. Acids leaked from barrels over time and destroyed both shipping containers and chemical containers, says Melcher. Many were rotten and leaking, so most had to be unloaded by hand.
Nevertheless, the containers were repacked in a complex process from the end of November 2020 to the end of April 2021. The cargo was then loaded onto a ship that left Beirut on May 5 and later reached Wilhelmshaven on the German North Sea coast in 11 days. The materials have now been taken to an interim storage facility and will be transported from there to waste disposal companies for disposal. Melcher says the substances will likely either be disposed of by incineration or chemically treated with neutralization and precipitation.
Concerns that the explosion may have released toxic material
The deadly explosion in August itself could also have released a number of toxic substances. Najat Saliba, analytical and atmospheric chemist at the American University of Beirut, notes that 640 old buildings at the port collapsed after the explosion. Since they were built during the period of Ottoman rule, the French Mandate colonial, and modern times before 1971, there was real concern that many contained asbestos.
Ground Zero was completely sealed off by the Lebanese army, so about two weeks after the explosion, Saliba’s team analyzed debris samples from the accessible residential areas and sent them in collaboration with health, safety and environmental auditing company ETHOS. for analysis to the UK environment. “We didn’t find any asbestos in these samples, that was reassuring,” she says.
In collaboration with ETH Zurich in Switzerland, Saliba and her team also examined air samples. “We checked to see if there was any asbestos in the particles we collected in town, and we didn’t find any,” she recalls.
She is also involved in an ongoing search for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are burn markers, as well as heavy metals. The results of this analysis, sent to the University of Lille in France in April, have been delayed by lockdowns in Lebanon and France during the pandemic. Saliba expects the university to deliver the results of these assessments by the end of July.
Damage all over the city
The explosion shook everything at the university and beyond, Saliba recalls. She was on a Zoom call from home with coworkers when everyone heard the explosion and ran in different directions. Buildings were damaged and doors and windows blown up on campus.
Fortunately, the university’s laboratories have not suffered much damage. On his desk, however, was one of Saliba’s research assistants who had pulled up a glass door just before the explosion to get a coffee. “He kept saying that coffee saved his life,” she says.
It would have been catastrophic if the chemistry labs had been shaken or badly damaged by the explosion because they contain gas tanks and chemicals that pose a number of risks. “An explosion like this can get ugly in a chemistry lab,” says Saliba. With the university’s laboratories about 3 miles from the port, the worst of the explosion was avoided.
After the explosion, there were many questions about the toxicity of the reddish cloud, which developed rapidly and spread inland over the harbor and over the water. While Saliba says satellite imagery confirms the cloud cleared within about 24 to 48 hours of the explosion, she is concerned that the ongoing demolition and construction work since the tragic event has exacerbated the city’s already high levels of pollution.
The problem is exacerbated by the economic collapse of Lebanon, which means that the government cannot provide continuous electricity supply and is therefore rationing the country’s electricity supply. According to Saliba, this has led to a significant increase in the use of diesel generators, which leads to an increased level of particles, nitrogen dioxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
“The current situation with the low power supply and the use of diesel generators could be even more toxic than the explosion,” says Saliba Chemistry world. “It’s already been devastating in terms of building reconstruction, homelessness and deaths, but even those forced to stay and work to rebuild their homes are exposed to toxic emissions from construction sites and these generators.”
The Lebanese Army is conducting an ongoing investigation into the environmental impact of the August disaster, although it is unclear when the results will be released.