Lebanese firefighters try to put out a fire that broke out at Beirut's port area, on September 10, 2020. Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP

AL MINA — On Thursday, a month after one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history rocked the Lebanese capital, residents once again watched in horror as a black plume of smoke rose up from the Beirut port.

The fire in the duty free zone appeared to be the latest manifestation of criminally negligent management and a lack of adherence to safety codes. Yet it was also no surprise, and can hardly be labeled an accident. Time and time again, the Beirut Port Authority has thwarted safety regulations, from the July 2006 war, to the August 4 explosion, until today.

Fifteen years ago, Ahmad Chhoury was an ambitious new hire at the Beirut port. Having risen from the ranks of yard supervisor to senior yard strategist for the newly-founded Beirut Container Terminal Consortium in the span of just two years, he was eager to bring Lebanon up to speed with global standards.

At the top of his priorities was to regulate the entry and storage of dangerous goods via the UN’s International Maritime Organization Convention – something which to him was glaringly and worryingly absent from the port.

“I was always scared about the safety measures,” said Chhoury, who has since served as ship manager at French shipping giant CMA-CGM in Marseille and currently heads planning for Gulftainer at the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli.

“In December 2004 I was one of the first seven clerks at Beirut port container terminal. Before there was no container terminal. There were random mobile cranes. it was total chaos and whoever pays bribes will take his stuff faster than everybody.”

Even as the container terminal grew from three cranes to the 16 it has today, the workings of the Customs Directorate as well as the Port Authority (Gestion et Exploitation du Port de Beyrouth – GEPB) remained a black box.

“We didn’t know what was happening in the warehouses. Inside the terminal we could manage to segregate containers, but inside the warehouses, once they were under the custody of Customs, we didn’t know anything,” he told Asia Times.

Chhoury, who holds certificates in International Safety Management code and Ship & Port Facility Security Code from the Alexandria-based Maritime Academy, decided with his colleagues to create a planning department, which they envisioned would be on par with the world’s major ports.

As senior yard strategist, he took charge of the dangerous goods file. That meant putting in place a process for everything related to dangerous goods, including how to segregate such containers, how to deliver them, and a process to inform the shipping agency and Customs in case of leakage.

The most sensitive part of his proposal, however, was to regulate the external handling of dangerous cargo, ensuring direct delivery rather than allowing goods such as explosives to disappear deeper into the labyrinth of the port, and under the authority of Customs.

A Lebanese army soldier and a man carry away an injured man at a hospital in the aftermath of an explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. Photo: Ibrahim Amro / AFP

‘STAY AWAY’

By June 2, 2006, Chhoury had put together a “Dangerous Cargo Planning” proposal to be submitted to the Port Authority – until last month led by Hassan Koraytem.

“Our aim is to have a terminal that competes internationally in all aspects and ensure a safe environment that fulfills and exceeds the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) code,” read the intro.

In the proposal, the journey of dangerous goods, from the BCTC container terminal to the onshore shipping agent, would be strictly regulated. Explosives, categorized by the International Maritime Organization as Class 1 dangerous goods, were to be directly delivered to or from a vessel.

“The agent will be required to get an external truck to wait for the container under the quay crane and have all his paperwork processed by logistics before the IMO class 1 container can be discharged from the vessel,” the draft said.

The proposal detailed the nine internationally-recognized classes of dangerous goods. Ammonium nitrate, an oxidizing agent, is class 5.1 – its symbol a yellow diamond with a flame above a ring. A chart – with each class and subcategory of hazardous cargo listed vertically and horizontally – contained symbols to guide port employees on what could and could not be stored next to what.

Ammonium nitrate as a Class 5.1 good, for example, should be separated from fireworks, a Class 1.4 explosive, by a distance of at least six meters, and by any other explosive “longitudinally by an intervening complete compartment or hold.”

In the case of spillage of any dangerous good, the regulation orders port employees: “do not touch or approach, STAY AWAY, and contact D.C. [dangerous cargo] planning.”

Proposed internal regulations mandated that “staff working in the yard should be aware of the location of the hazardous storage area and the dangers they pose.” Any hazardous goods should be stacked “in an easily accessible position” and there must be “sufficient space to open the doors and free access for fire fighting.”

Segean Jabbour, quality control manager at BCTC, who was Chhoury’s manger at the time, told Asia Times the proposal was limited to the container terminal and did not concern the rest of the port.

“As a container operator we don’t have influence in other parts of the port. The exception is if they ask us to move some containers to other parts of the port; we move them on request and we implement IMO,” he said.

Jabbour said that most of the guidelines proposed for the BCTC terminal in 2006 were endorsed by the Port Authority, but acknowledged that direct delivery was determined “not feasible.”.

Asia Times understands that this step, if implemented, would have involved army oversight.

Colonel Georges Khoury, a spokesman for the Lebanese Armed Forces, told Asia Times the army is only tasked with maintaining overall security and controlling entry and exit to the port.

“These LAF personnel are not responsible for controlling the types of merchandise and goods, the materials and their storage methods in containers and warehouses,” he said.

“These functions are assigned to the Port Authority and the General Directorate of Customs,” Khoury added.

Chhoury says his superiors submitted his proposal to the Port Authority in early June. Days and weeks went by. While they were waiting for an answer, war broke out with Israel.

Russian rescue teams search for survivors at Beirut port on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. Photo: Joseph Eid / AFP

July war warning

When Israel launched an air campaign in Lebanon following the abduction of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah in July 2006, Chhoury says he was one of 15 port employees out of more than 450 who were asked to stay behind.

The war would drive home just how exposed the port was from hazardous goods within. During that month, Chhoury’s “only job” was damage control.

“I was responsible for calling all the clients that have [International Maritime Organization] class dangerous goods containers to deliver them immediately. I was calling them every day many times just to evacuate all dangerous goods,” said Chhoury.

Desperate for a solution and overwhelmed by 200 such containers, he and his colleagues decided to move all the dangerous goods containers to one segregated area of the port.

“It was stupid because we surrounded the containers with waterfilled containers just in case something explodes. But if Israel exploded one of those containers at the time we could have all died, because the water would give them oxygen and there are some explosives that become more dangerous with water.”

At the time, he says, it was the only solution, giving the nationwide bombardments. While he and his colleagues knew the IMO classifications of the goods in each container, they had no way of knowing what was inside each one – the manifests only known by Lebanese Customs.

“We were scared to give them to the trucks in case Israel blew them up,” he said. When the war ended a month later, Chhoury would finally get an answer on his proposal.

“They told us to forget about it,” said Chhoury. “The answer was, don’t touch the external side, even for containers. Just focus on your internal things, but don’t touch the delivery time of the containers. Anything related to Customs and clearances, don’t approach it.”

The response to his superiors, Chhoury notes, was communicated by word of mouth and was not in writing.

The Port Authority has not yet responded to written queries or telephone requests for comment and by Monday evening was dealing with the latest crisis.

Had the regulation been applied from 2006, Chhoury believes he and his colleagues would not have been stuck with 200 containers of dangerous goods during the July war.

More crucially, had the regulations been implemented beyond the container terminal even a decade later, Beirut Port authorities may not have been able to so easily hoard 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate; a stockpile that would rip through Beirut last month, killing some 200 people, maiming thousands, and destroying livelihoods.

“Instead of facilitating the work to apply this regulation, they blocked it in 2006. Okay, internally we were segregating dangerous goods, we were doing our jobs. But on the external side they didn’t cooperate.”

The Port Authority’s record of thwarting regulation suggests that any lack of compliance to IMO standards is by design, not by accident.

Judge Fadi Sawwan, who is leading the probe into the August 4 explosion, ordered the arrest of Port Director Koraytem on August 18, rendering him unavailable for comment.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.