An industrial explosives expert says Tuesday's devastating explosion in Beirut highlights the potentially deadly consequences of storing ammonium nitrate products near urban areas, such as Newcastle.
''It doesn't matter how small the risk is, the consequences are catastrophic when you are dealing with something that can turn solid iron mountains into mounds of rubble,'' Tony Richards, who managed and designed blasting operations for Orica and BHP, said.
The Beirut explosion, which killed at least 100 people and injured more than 4000, was sparked by a fire at a warehouse containing 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
Orica, which stores on average between 6000 and 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Kooragang Island said it followed world's best practice regarding the storage and handling of the material.
Its comments about Australian's rigorous safety standards were echoed by the NSW Minerals Council and Chemistry Australia.
Mr Richards estimated an ammonium nitrate explosion on Kooragang Island could cause major damage as far away as Charlestown.
"I have often said that if Kooragang Island goes up the people in Sydney will hear it and say 'what's that?' The answer will be it used to be Newcastle."
Stockton Community Action Group member and engineer Keith Craig said his group had long-held concerns about the storage of ammonium nitrate at Kooragang Island.
"The Orica factory should be closed down and built closer to coal mines away from communities," he said.
"While the likelihood of an explosion is low the outcome would be catastrophic putting the Orica plant in the high risk category.
"Ammonium nitrate can explode due to shock, fire and contact with a contaminant - you don't have to have oil and a detonator."
Similarly, Mayfield resident John L Hayes said the Beirut explosion highlighted why many Newcastle residents were opposed to ammonium nitrate facilities being located close to their communities.
"If an accident can happen in Beirut it can happen here," he said.
Orica's Kooragang Island manufacturing centre manager Paul Hastie said there had not been a single incident involving the storage of ammonium nitrate during the site's 51 year history.
"Orica has stringent practices in place to ensure the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate. Practices are carried out in accordance with all regulatory requirements including the Australian Dangerous Goods Code, Australian Standards and the Explosives Act," Mr Hastie said.
"In addition, Orica Kooragang Island holds a major hazard facility licence. In order for this licence to be obtained the site's safety management systems, security arrangements and emergency response procedures undergo a strict auditing and verification process by SafeWork NSW.
"Ammonium nitrate storage areas are fire resistant and built exclusively from non-flammable materials. There are no flammable sources within designated exclusion zones around these areas."
Incitec Pivot, located next to Orica, is also licensed to store ammonium nitrate. A spokeswoman said ammonium nitrate had not been stored at its Kooragang Island facility since 2014.
"Where required, we have interim arrangements with a licensed third party supplier at Sandgate to provide storage for our products," she said.
"Incitec Pivot Limited is fully compliant with all government regulations related to the storage of ammonium nitrate. We require our third-party transport and storage suppliers to be compliant with all government regulations."
Trucking company Crawfords Freightlines, which has been storing ammonium nitrate at Sandgate since 2009, referred the Newcastle Herald to statements by the Minerals Council and Chemistry Australia.
In 2012 the Environment Protection Authority found the company was storing more than the 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate it was permitted to store on site.
An Environment Protection Authority spokesperson said recent inspections had not identified any significant concerns with respect to chemical storage at ammonium nitrate storage facilities.
"Premises that store significant quantities of ammonium nitrate are classified as Major Hazard Facilities and are subject to regulation and oversight by SafeWork NSW, the Environment Protection Authority, and the Department of Planning," he said.
"Environment protection licences for these facilities include strict conditions to manage risks to the environment and human health.
"The EPA regularly inspects all licensed premises to ensure compliance with licence conditions."
The NSW Minerals Council said the state had some of the strictest protocols in the world to manage the storage of dangerous goods.
"Ammonium nitrate is completely inert and is stored separately until it is mixed with specific reagents at the site," it said.
"It is also non-flammable in its pure form and stored separately from flammable materials."
Chemistry Australia said the chemical industry was committed to ensuring Australia's strict regulations were rigorously adhered to.
"Chemistry Australia and its members are closely following the Beirut incident and will continue to work with regulators and authorities to ensure Australia's robust regulatory environment is maintained," a statement said.
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