Andhra Pradesh

Concerns raised over import, storage of ammonium nitrate in Vizag

A file photo of the trucks carrying ammonium nitrate that were seized by the Etcherla police in 2016.  

After huge quantities of ammonium nitrate reportedly stored in a warehouse exploded in Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, killing at least 100 people and injuring over 4,000, concerns have been raised over the import, storage and transportation of the substance in the city.

Speaking to The Hindu, former Union Secretary E.A.S. Sarma said on Wednesday that the Visakhapatnam Port alone had witnessed an import of 2,60,505 tonnes of ammonium nitrate during 2018-19.

The Home Ministry should direct the State government to mount surveillance on the import, storage and distribution of ammonium nitrate consignments, he said.

What the rules say

The Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012, stipulate rigorous norms for storing the chemical, and it requires the local authorities to conduct periodical and surprise inspections to detect lapses that can lead to major accidents, or misuse of the chemical.

“I am not sure whether the private companies concerned have in place emergency accident plans in conformation with the Rules. In case of an accident in Visakhapatnam, the HPCL Refinery, the airport in its vicinity, and the thickly populated residential colonies nearby will be severely affected,” Mr. Sarma feared. “Every truck carrying the chemical substance should be fitted with GPS tracking facility” he added.

Every year, on an average, about 2 lakh to 2.5 lakh tonnes of ammonium nitrate is imported from various countries, especially Russia, through the Visakhapatnam Port.

According to Sambasiva Rao, managing director of Sravan Shipping, the sole CFS agent for the chemical, the stock is usually lifted in one week by the importers, mostly fertilizer and coal mining companies. “But, at any given point of time, a stock of 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes is maintained in the enclosed and fully secured stockyards,” he claimed.

‘Sought-after by Maoists’

Though ammonium nitrate that is imported is of fertiliser grade, it is a potent explosive substance and much sought-after by the banned CPI (Maoist).

In 2010, a truck carrying 16 tonnes of the chemical from Visakhapatnam to Jharkhabd was hijacked by the Maoists near Jagdalpur. In 2016, two trucks carrying 44 tonnes of the substance was seized near Etcherla in Srikakulam district.

According to a senior police officer engaged in the anti-Maoist operation, most of the ammonium nitrate from Visakhapatnam goes to States such as Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which are part of the Red Corridor of the CPI (Maoist).

“Ammonium nitrate is sought by the Maoists as it is the basic ingredient to make IEDs. But now, with the tightening of the transport procedure, they are falling back on Cordtex. An IED can be made easily by using ammonium nitrate, as all it requires is a catalyst in the form of diesel. That is why it continues to be the favourite of the Maoists,” he said.

‘Safety measures in place’

“The chemical cannot explode on its own. It needs a reactive catalyst, and that is why we do not allow any other chemical into the warehouse where it is stored,” said Mr. Sambasiva Rao, who had been importing it since 20 years.

“Moreover, all safety measures such as CCTV cameras and manual security are in place. Fire safety arrangements have been made as per the prescribed standards. As per the government order, to avoid pilferage and spillage, it is now imported in 1,000 kg bags and not in bulk. Even the transporter is regulated and approved by the government for accountability,” he added.

“The warehouses are periodically checked by the departments concerned such as the police, fire, PCB and PESO,” he added.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 7:01:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/concerns-raised-over-import-storage-of-ammonium-nitrate-in-vizag/article32288841.ece

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