Lighting a fuse on safety

By unpacking the events that led to the dreadful Beirut blast, and exploring how other governments and industry bodies are improving the safety of the Dangerous Goods supply chain, the international community can play its part in preventing such terrible history from repeating itself.

It took a disastrous ammonium nitrate detonation in Beirut, Lebanon, to remind the world of the importance of handling and storing Dangerous Goods (DG).

This unfortunate incident levelled sections of the Lebanese capital city and amounted to 190 fatalities and more than 6,000 wounded. According to specialists at the UK University of Sheffield, the blast had about one tenth of the explosive power of the atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima during World War Two. The Lebanese Prime Minister confirmed that these explosions were caused by an estimated 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left unsecured for six years in a port warehouse. That large quantity of the chemical arrived in Beirut in September 2013 via the Rhosus, a sea vessel that sailed from Batumi in Georgia to Mozambique and was impounded by Beirut’s Port State Control due to severe safety issues (a hole in the ship’s hull). The ship was subsequently abandoned by its owner, a Russian businessman, Igor Grechushkin.

According to various mainstream media sources Grechushkin opted to dump the cargo rather than sell it. The DG lot was then packed in one-tonne bags and transferred to Beirut’s port warehouse. Herein lies the flaws of Lebanon’s DG supply chain. Other parts of the world like Australia would refer to this as a failure of the Chain of Responsibility (CoR). The aim of CoR, according to Australia’s National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR), is to make sure that everyone in the supply chain shares responsibility to ensure breaches do not occur. Under these laws, at least in Australia, if you are named a third party in the CoR and you exercise (or have the power of exercising) control or influence over any transport task, you have a responsibility to ensure the law (in this instance: Heavy Vehicle National Law) is complied with. A customs chief in Beirut, Badri Daher, told international media that his agency pleaded with Lebanese courts and high officials to order the DG to be removed.

It is reported that letters from customs officials from 2014 to 2017 that proposed options to remove, export or sell the dangerous cargo were ignored by the Lebanese judiciary. Meanwhile, the Lebanese Supreme Defence Council has vowed that those found responsible will face punishment. Economy Minister Raoul Nehme told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that the state does not intend to stay silent on who is responsible for what, emphasising that those found responsible will be rendered the “maximum punishment” possible. Information Minister, Manal Abdel Samad, said that all port officials who have handled the affairs of storing the ammonium nitrate such as guarding it and handling paperwork are subject to house arrest. Investigations into the Beirut tragedy at the time of writing are ongoing.

DG safety in Australia is considered a top priority. A webinar hosted by National Bulk Tanker Association (NBTA) earlier this year outlined the results of a study on DG movements in New South Wales, Australia. The aim of the study, predicated on data taken from the fleets of a number of tanker operators, was to plan for future infrastructure needs of the DG tanker sector. One of the key issues identified in the study was the steady proliferation of tunnels in the NSW road network through which DG vehicles are prohibited to travel. The issue here is that the alternative routes that DG vehicles are required to use may not necessarily be upgraded to the required standards for said vehicles because they are not considered to be primary arterial roads anymore.

Transport Certification Australia (TCA) Strategic Development Officer, John Gordon, started by thanking the companies who had participated in the study and acknowledging that the TCA had received really good engagement from the DG industry.

“We had 152 vehicles which provided 12 months of data equating to millions of records of trips all over Australia,” said Gordon. “We’ve handed this data to the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), and made sure the data we’ve received is handled securely, de-identified and aggregated data is all that is being used in the study.”

Gordon said each of the vehicles engaged in the study averaged close to 3,000 hours travelling time adding up to almost 450,000 hours of vehicle movements overall, making it a robust amount of data from which to draw conclusions.

“One of the key findings was just how far these vehicles travel – all over Australia – and the fact that NSW is very clearly a major hub for the national DG tanker operations,” he said. “The interconnectivity of this operation is very critical for us to understand and we were also able to see the regionality of it with some of the national highways seeing upwards of 100,000 vehicle movements per year.”

Gordon described a couple of critical learnings that the TCA had gained from the exercise.

“The willingness of industry to share data under the right consent arrangements was very pleasing and most of the data was very usable,” said Gordon. He added that the TCA was also planning to do detailed analysis of other precincts including ports and rail hubs. Overall, a primary goal of the DG road tanker study is to elevate the findings to a ministerial level to ensure road infrastructure decision makers have an accurate and up-to-date record of DG vehicle movements in NSW. This is expected to assist in the development of appropriate infrastructure on DG routes, particularly those which were formerly major arterials that have been supplanted by routes with tunnels which cannot be used by DG vehicles.

For additional context, Transport for NSW (TfNSW) commissioned the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) to undertake a DG movement study in September 2019. The aim of that project was to determine where DG are being transported by road in NSW, with a focus on the Sydney metropolitan region, in order to identify and protect DG routes. The study has encompassed the transportation of bulk tanked flammable gas, flammable liquid and chemicals, with the use of telematics data to identify movements.

TCA undertook the analysis in a de-identified and aggregated manner to ensure the privacy of participants. Four industry associations – Road Freight NSW, National Bulk Tanker Association, Gas Energy Australia and National Road Transport Association – participated in the project.

According to Formula Chemicals Director and Road Freight NSW Chairman, Leigh Smart, a total of 152 DG tanker operators took part in the study by allowing TCA to access and collate their telematics data.

“This provided a broad representation of the industry and presented valuable evidence-based insights into the various types of DG movements in NSW, and particularly around the Sydney basin,” said Smart. “The information will be collated and analysed for the preparation of the final Report.”

Smart said TCA will be in contact with the individual companies that took part in the study to supply the results of the analysis undertaken for their own in-house use.

“In Formula’s case, it was found that over a 12-month period there were over 22,000 DG movements throughout NSW,” said Smart. “The information provided has helped in streamlining our operations and to limit the number of DG movements and duplications in some areas. “It is proposed that an industry consultation workshop will be undertaken at the completion of the project where the outcome of the study will be presented.

“I would like to thank everyone who was involved in the project for their support as the outcome will assist TfNSW in identifying and implementing strategies to protect and improve DG routes,” he said.

It is imperative that all participants of the DG supply chains do their due diligence at all times to ensure safe outcomes for everyone.

Fast Fact
The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator in Australia reported in July this year that about 35 per cent of road tankers that comply with the Regulator’s Performance-Based Standards (PBS) high productivity scheme are spec’d to carry dangerous goods.

Fast Fact
China is set to reinforce the safety of transporting Dangerous Goods (DG) by focusing on the rectification of violations such as addressing non-compliant tankers carrying liquid DG. CIMC Group is working towards stimulating the replacement of non-compliant vehicles across China’s semi-trailer market.

The aftermath of the Beirut blast earlier this year.

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