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Chemical Compound Behind Beirut Disaster Linked to Earlier Texas Explosions


Ammonium nitrate, the volatile chemical compound behind a massive explosion that leveled much of Beirut, Lebanon, earlier this week, has a deadly history in the United States, especially Texas.

Even so, most residents of the Lone Star State, including Houston, are probably unaware that chemical companies could be storing the hazardous substance right in their own backyards.

Ammonium Nitrate Used to Make Fertilizer and Bombs

Experts believe the devastating explosion that rocked the Port of Beirut on August 4th killed at least 137 people, destroyed over 100 buildings, and left more than 300,000 homeless was likely fueled by fireworks and ammonium nitrate, a highly volatile chemical compound used to make fertilizer and bombs.

Nearly 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate had apparently been stored unsecured at a warehouse near the Port of Beirut for almost six years. While the compound doesn’t typically ignite on its own, video of the catastrophe suggests a fire that engulfed fireworks being stored near the port also ignited the stockpile of ammonium nitrate.

“Before the big explosion, you can see in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn, and you can hear whistles,” Boaz Hayoun, owner of the Tamar Group, an Israeli firm that works closely with the Israeli government on safety and certification issues involving explosives, told the Associated Press. “This is very specific behavior of fireworks, the visuals, the sounds, and the transformation from a slow burn to a massive explosion.”

Texas Ammonium Nitrate Explosions

Explosions triggered by ammonium nitrate have killed thousands of people in the United States. In fact, the compound was used by the domestic terrorists responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

In 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people, injured 160 others, and destroyed dozens of buildings in the Central Texas community, including a nursing home and three of the town’s four schools.

Ammonium nitrate was also the cause of the massive cargo ship explosion that killed more than 500 people and injured thousands of others in Texas City in 1947. According to ABC 13, that blast caused windows to shatter as far away as Houston and registered on a seismograph in Denver, Colorado. Burning debris sparked fires at nearby chemical plants and refineries, while a barge anchored in port was blown out of the water and landed 110 feet away.

Everyone standing nearby, including nearly the entire Texas City Volunteer Fire Department, died when the ammonium nitrate detonated. As the fire continued to burn into the next day, ammonium nitrate exploded on a second ship, killing two more people.

While it’s estimated that the 1947 Texas City explosion claimed between 500 and 600 lives, authorities were never able to pinpoint the exact number of dead. Today, that disaster remains one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in the community’s history.

Trump Gutted Regulations Intended to Prevent Chemical Disasters

According to The Houston Chronicle, the Obama administration enacted new rules shortly after the West, Texas explosion that, among other things, made public the list of chemicals stored at facilities across the country – including ammonium nitrate. But those rules were eliminated by the Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2019.

As a result, the operators of industrial plants and storage facilities no longer have to apprise the public about the chemicals located onsite. They also aren’t required to conduct third-party audits or a root-cause analysis after an incident.

The Trump administration argued that rolling back the “unnecessary” regulations would save $88 million and reduce security risks ostensibly raised when the presence of volatile chemicals is disclosed. But many safety advocates believe the weakened regulations only increase the potential for the kinds of catastrophic explosions that had previously destroyed the communities of West, Texas and Texas City.

“The Chemical Disaster Rule is meant to save lives. The lives of our first responders, workers, and communities,” Juan Parras, executive director for the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, told The Houston Chronicle shortly after the regulations were rescinded. “Our lives don’t matter to this administration. We as a people need to rise and say no more and place pressure at every point.”

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