Liberia: Danger at Port of Buchanan

Liberia's Environmental Protection Agency is alarmed about the presence of high quantities of ammonium nitrate and heavy fuel oil at the Port of Buchanan, a combination that is proven to be both toxic and deadly.  

… As EPA raises the alarm of 260 tons of ammonium nitrate which, if carelessly handled, would trigger massive blast that — similar to the Beirut port incident in 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a security alert for Port of Buchanan, citing the presence of the highly explosive chemical substance, ammonium nitrate.

The EPA, yesterday warned that the chemical, which is in a huge quantity at the port, is a threat to human health and the environment. It is being stored at the port along with heavy fuel oil (HFO) on board a vessel named EKMEN. 

“The EPA wishes to alert national security agencies about the presence of 260 tons of ammonium nitrate and heavy fuel at that port,” the statement said. These, however, pose a severe threat to human health and the environment.”

However, EPA did not disclose the identity of the importer(s) but noted that the management of the Bea Mountain Mining Corporation (BMMC) confirmed the presence of said vessel and chemical.

The EPA release also failed to clarify whether Bea Mountain Mining and its supplier complied with all guidelines governing the importation, transport, and handling storage of such chemicals. Ammonium nitrate, which is highly explosive and could destroy almost the entire port city of Buchanan, Grand Bassa County — leaving ruins behind is relatively safe if uncontaminated and stored properly but extremely dangerous if contaminated, mixed with fuel, or stored unsafely.

It is an industrial chemical commonly used in fertilizers and explosives, but its impacts from careless handling are deadly as it happened in the Lebanese capital Beirut when a massive explosion caused by more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate improperly stored left the city in widely damaging with shocking aftermath of more than 135 deaths.

At high temperatures, ammonium nitrate can violently decompose on its own — creating gases including nitrogen oxides and water vapor that cause an explosion. If this happens, the resulting blast would produce enormous white and toxic dark brown fumes that could contaminate a large portion of the port city of Buchanan —containing hazardous nitric oxides (NOx). Only one or two breaths of the NOx stream can cause severe toxicity — since it is heavier than air, hence exposure can result in asphyxiation. 

The chemical can damage the respiratory system in several different ways: first, by its conversion into nitric and nitrous acids in the distal airways, damaging the alveolar structure.  Secondly, by causing oxidative stress through the generation of free radicals, which results in protein oxidation, lipid peroxidation, and cell membrane damage.  It also increases the risk of lung infections. 

However, the EPA, being aware of the threat the chemical poses, especially being stored near heavy fuel oil,  is now issuing a security alert as a means of avoiding potential tragedies with devastating human and infrastructure loss, disturbing all functional aspects of affected communities.

As part of the alert, the EPA has instructed BMMC on the proper storage and the level of threat the contaminated ammonium nitrate poses to the port of Buchanan and the people of Liberia.

“The Agency has sent out a warning to the shipping line ‘Cargo Marine International’ (CMI) and BMMC and re-emphasized that no further action should be performed outside the established protocols of the Agency during a meeting with representatives of both CMI and BMMC,” the statement added.  “In view of the above, the agency calls on the National Security Authorities as an alert, given the threat the vessel poses to Human Health and the Environment.”

The Port of Buchanan is located 272 kilometers southeast of Monrovia and is the second-largest sea port in Liberia. The harbor is protected by two breakwaters 1,890m and 590m long. Inside the basin, a 225-meter long ore loading quay is located adjacent to the commercial loading quay, providing a water depth of 10.5m below chart datum.

Adjacent to the loading quay, another waiting berth for ore carriers is available. On the inner side of the secondary breakwater, is a commercial quay, 334m long with an available water depth of 9.5m below chart datum. The access channel to the Port provides ships a water depth of 11.5m below chart datum and a channel width between the breakwaters of 210m. Shipping activities have increased because of the equipment handling agreement with UMARCO that has improved the Port’s handling capacity and efficiency. 

Meanwhile, the warning from the EPA comes nearly two weeks after it was constrained to call for calm after a truck carrying tons of ammonium nitrate, imported in the country and being transported by BMMC to its New Liberty Gold Mines, crashed when the vehicle veered off the road in Sinje district.

The truck, which also belongs to gold mining company Bea Mountain, departed Buchanan and was conveying 26 metric tons of ammonium nitrate to the company project site. The spillage incident occurred along the Small Bomi Community, a town located after Sinje, approximately 3 Kilometers from the Daniel Town laterite road, which leads to the mines. 

The truck, with registration number TR-007, was driven under the fleet of Sayminee Transport Services, a registered chemical transporter. 

“The tip over resulted in a spill of about 10 metric tons of ammonium nitrate at the top of the embankment,” said EPA Executive Director Wilson Tarpeh at the time. 

Liberia is a party to the Basel Convention and European Union (EC) regulations 1013/2006 and 1418/2007 as amended by Regulation (EC) 733/2014 is obligated to ensure all enforcement.  This also ensures that contaminated materials at ports, be disposed of properly, consistent with article one of the Basel Convention, which requires that hazardous wastes or other wastes earmarked to be exported are managed in an environmentally sound manner.