How 3000 tons of ammonium nitrate ended up in Beirut

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This has been an issue, perhaps the principal issue, in the cause of rainforest destruction where the forests are supposedly protected or regulated. (I was part of a demonstration in 1992 with three enviro orgs that prevented the Sammi Superstar from unloading for several hours - the 150 ft banner looked small on the side of the ship, but on today’s vessels would have looked like a postage stamp.) Container ships have only been with us since 1956. Ships are so massive now, and there is so much cargo on the move, the cargo is virtually impossible to regulate. As the ships get larger, they have fewer places to dock, so, much more of humanity that depends on these ships never sees just how impossibly massive they are. This is from a youtube screenshot labeled “ex-largest container ship”:

The containers look like legos but it is overwhelming when you spot humans on it for scale. Ship capacity is rated in easy to understand “TEU” or “Twenty foot Equivalent Units” which is to say “20 ft shipping container capacity.” There are currently nine ships in the 19,000-21,000 unit range. One was modified to break 20,000 which has become a status symbol for shipmakers. A lot of times things that aren’t supposed to be in there are discovered by agricultural inspectors who aren’t even looking for that stuff.


I like, hate to be that dude, but…

These are bad guys, doing bad things. And they got caught, and the cargo was seized by the Lebanese government, years ago. They are responsible for very bad things, but let’s be clear here: Right now, on the high seas, are tens or hundreds of ships engaged in similar, very bad things; tons of shady explosives companies involved in creating tools for very bad things, and many, many men with hearts of depraved indifference profiting from jeopardizing crews for profit.

But the explosion was the Lebanese government’s fault, because they stored this material poorly. Full stop. They are the ones culpable for this.

It does no one good to let them deflect the blame on this. It was tragic, the government needs to own it and do what they can to make it right and other governments need to heed the warning. They should have stored this safely, or disposed of it safely. If they would have seized it last month, I’d put the responsibility on the shady shippers; but it has been sitting there for years, and the government put it there. (Not that letting it sink with the ship would have been good either…)



This was a terrorist plot to intentionally get caught, knowing it would be improperly stored for years, and then just playing the long game that eventually lax safety standards would lead to an explosion.


(to be clear though, no, not really.)


Letting it sink with the ship probably would have been better. Ammonium nitrate is water soluble, and while it’s not a wonderful idea to let a bunch of fertilizer dissolve into the ocean, it’s probably better for the both the environment and the city of Beirut that a giant explosion in the middle of an industrial area with who knows what else stored nearby in the middle of a densely populated city.


oooo wouldn’t that cause a huge algae bloom and kill everything in the area from it sucking all the free oxygen out of the water?

Still, I guess one short term disaster that would bounce back relatively fast with out killing people or destroying massive amounts of infrastructure might be preferable…


Exactly my thinking, but it’s also pretty dependent on where it sinks. If you’re talking the middle of the ocean and not an enclosed harbor or something, there’s a lot of water to dilute the fertilizer. 3000 tonnes is a lot but it’s not not very much compared to a large body of water. If you have enough water and a decent current, it might not even cause a noticeable event.

That said, the best bet would be to properly dispose of it once it’s been seized and abandoned by its owner. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


One thing to note: actual twenty-foot containers aren’t all that common anymore; 90+% of the containers you’ll see out in the world (being hauled by trucks, riding the rails, etc.) are forty feet long, or 2 TEUs each. I do see twankies once in a while, but they always seem unnaturally stubby.


Farmers would have taken it in a heartbeat. Fertilizer has been added to bodies of water in hopes of supporting fish stocks. Isn’t algae largely photosynthetic?

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Nutrient loading is not good in the ocean (or most aquatic) environment. There is typically already too much in bays, estuaries, and the open ocean. Most of that is due to agricultural runoff; after all, rivers flow out to the sea. But when you add in climate change, the balance shifts too far to the eutrophic side and everything above zooplankton struggles.

Well, plants both produce and consume oxygen. Photosynthesis produces oxygen but when the cells use stored energy they consume it again. In addition when the algae dies it decomposes in an oxygen consuming process.


I was thinking so too! I think the only 20 ft I see now are for temporary storage.

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