A company with a history of chemical leak accidents has up to four times the amount of ammonium nitrate detonated in Beirut’s blast stockpiled just 800m from Newcastle residents.
Orica, one of the world’s largest providers of commercial explosives to the mining industry, has 6000 to 12,000 tonnes stored at its Kooragang Island plant in the Port of Newcastle.
The massive stockpile, which is 800m from North Stockton and 3km from Newcastle’s CBD, could annihilate Newcastle if it exploded.
Explosives expert Tony Richards, who has managed and designed blasting operations for Orica and BHP, said 40,000 people live in the blast zone if an explosion was to occur.
In industrial mining use, he said ammonium nitrate is “designed to turn solid iron mountains into mounds of rubble to extract it”.
If it went off, he said, the blast would be heard in Sydney and, “Newcastle just wouldn’t exist.”
Ammonium nitrate is an odourless white crystalline substance used as fertiliser, to make explosives, matches and antibiotics.
While Orica says it safely stores its ammonium nitrate, which becomes explosive when it comes in contact with fuel or oil, the company’s history of chemical leaks makes nearby residents anxious.
Chemical engineer and community campaigner Keith Craig said on Thursday he thought Orica was storing the ammonium nitrate “quite well, but the risk profile if it did happen would be catastrophic”.
“It’s not the sort of plant you have right in the city of Newcastle,” he said.
“Orica’s had a few leaks in the past.”
In 2011, a NSW Upper House committee hearing into Orica’s leak of hexavalent chromium was told the company had breached its licence 130 times over a decade.
North Stockton residents then were not told about leaks of hexavalent chromium (also known as chromium-6) and ammonia from the Orica plant until days later.
Orica had three chemical spills in as many months and was also responsible for a release of arsenic into the Hunter River.
In the same year, Orica’s then plant at Botany in southern Sydney released mercury vapours which exceeded the licensed levels.
Orica had chemical plants in Sydney at Botany, Villawood, Rhodes and at Banksmeadow, where Greenpeace claimed it caused groundwater pollution via toxic waste storage.
The company is licensed annually to produce up to 385,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which provides explosives for the Hunter Valley’s coal mining industry.
In a statement released after the Beirut explosion, Orica said stringent practices were used to safely store ammonium nitrate in fire-resistant areas.
“Orica adheres to all international standards and local regulations that ensure safety at every stage of the manufacturing supply chain,” it said.
In 2013, the small US town of West, Texas suffered a catastrophic blast when a massive fireball levelled houses and devastated buildings within a five block radius, killing 15 people.
The disaster occurred when a fire was lit in West’s fertiliser plant and then water was sprayed on about 200 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.