VIDEO: "Like a nuclear bomb" here
IT was like Iraq, a nuclear bomb, a tornado.
Those were the words US officials used to describe the devastation created by a blast at a fertiliser plant in Texas yesterday that injured more than 160 and killed between five and 15 people.
Half a world away – in Newcastle – residents living in the shadow of Kooragang Island wondered if a similar explosion could happen here.
Newcastle-based explosives expert Tony Richards, who has managed and designed blasting operations for Orica and BHP, said yesterday there were two important parallels between the Texas disaster and the storage of ammonia nitrates at Kooragang.
‘‘Firstly, there is the danger of having ammonia nitrate products anywhere within the proximity of residential areas,’’ Mr Richards said.
Secondly, there was the risk for catastrophic consequences in the event of an explosion.
‘‘However small the risk may be, the consequences are catastrophic when you are dealing with something designed to turn solid iron mountains into mounds of rubble to extract it,’’ he said.
A police spokesman in the small Texan town of West, home to the fertiliser plant, said the disaster started with a fire that broke out about 6.30pm.
Emergency crews realised the severity of the threat and started evacuations but ‘‘perhaps 15minutes later a massive explosion occurred’’, Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton said.
A massive fireball tore through the evening air, levelling houses and devastating buildings within a five-block radius of the blast.
‘‘It was a small fire and then water got sprayed on the ammonium nitrate, and it exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb,’’ Jason Shelton, a clerk at a local hotel, said.
‘‘I live about a thousand feet [300metres] from it and it blew my screen door off and my back windows. There’s houses levelled that were right next to it.’’
Stockton Community Action Group spokesman and chemical engineer Keith Craig said the Texas explosion was exactly what the community was concerned about happening in Newcastle.
‘‘It is reported the massive explosion in West was the result of just 300tonnes of an ammonia nitrate product exploding during a fire at the plant,’’ Mr Craig said.
There is up to 10,000tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the Orica plant on Kooragang Island at any one time, he said. The plant produces 430,000tonnes of the potentially explosive product annually.
Incitec Pivot stores and distributes ammonium nitrate nearby.
In addition, Crawfords Freightlines at Sandgate is seeking approval to store up to 13,500tonnes of ammonium nitrate 300metres from the closest residents and 600metres from a nursing home at Sandgate, Mr Craig said.
‘‘The Planning Department and NSW government have to urgently reject the Crawfords proposed ammonium nitrate storage at Shortland and ultimately consider the relocation of the Orica ammonium nitrate plant to a location well away from communities,’’ he said.
A proposal by Incitec Pivot to build an ammonium nitrate manufacturing plant on Kooragang Island – three kilometres from the heart of Newcastle’s city centre but which is understood to be on hold – should also be rejected, he said.
John Hayes from the Correct Planning and Consultation for Mayfield group, described having ‘‘incredibly dangerous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate stored in large quantities so close to communities’’ as negligent.
‘‘The government ... putting mining royalties and jobs ahead of community lives and safety is abhorrent,’’ he said.
‘‘Enough is enough, the storage of ammonium nitrate near communities has to end.”
But Simon Westaway, Orica’s general manager of corporate communications, was quick to assure the community yesterday that Orica adhered to internationally recognised best practice when it came to the production and storage of ammonium nitrate.
‘‘We operate to the highest international standards,’’ he said.
The ammonium nitrate produced and stored by Orica at Kooragang Island was an industrial-grade substance different to the fertiliser-grade anhydrous ammonia involved in the West explosion, he said.
Compliance manager for Crawfords Freightlines, Paul McGrath, said it was too early to be definitive about what was involved in, and caused, the explosion in Texas.
‘‘There’s going to be a lot of conjecture and a lot of guessing... but this is a totally different operation, we have no incompatible products on site, and we do not manufacture ammonium nitrate here, we only store it,’’ he said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment and Heritage said the issue was a matter for Work Cover NSW and the Department of Planning and Infrastructure.
Environment Minister Robyn Parker declined to comment last night because of the fact that storage and safety issues did not come under her portfolio.