IN-DEPTH: Beirut blast 10 times more powerful than 2013 West explosion — but same chemical was responsible


AUSTIN (KXAN/AP) — Residents of Beirut confronted a scene of utter devastation on Wednesday, a day after a massive explosion at the port rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 100 people, wounding thousands and leaving entire city blocks flooded with glass and rubble.

Ammonium nitrate, which is typically used in agricultural fertilizer, was stored without safety measures for six years, according to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab. He said there was more than 2,750 metric tons of the chemical.

That’s the same chemical responsible for the deadly 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas just north of Austin, which killed 15 people, including a dozen volunteer firefighters.

The blast in Beirut though was reportedly 10-times stronger than the explosion in West.

Despite being a popular chemical in fertilizer, ammonium nitrate is highly volatile around open flames. The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant initially started as a fire. It was later discovered that the fire was a case of arson.

The explosion at the plant brought the safety and awareness of ammonium nitrate to the attention of local and state lawmakers. The Williamson County Emergency Management Office has upgraded its software with a program that helps plan for worst-case scenarios in the event of a chemical explosion, and they’ve added to their certified hazmat team in the department.

Last November, the Trump administration scaled back chemical plant safety measures that were put in place after the West explosion. It included ending a requirement that plants provide members of the public information about chemical risks upon request.

The Environmental Protection Agency said disclosing that information was a security concern and that doing away with it relieves “unnecessary administrative burdens.” Environmentalists criticized the move as one that would put people’s lives at risk.

The blast in Beirut severely damaged numerous apartment buildings, potentially leaving large numbers of people homeless at a time when many Lebanese have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. The explosion also raises concerns about how Lebanon will continue to import nearly all of its vital goods with its main port devastated.

Ammonium nitrate was also used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

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