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two reports point to insufficient regulations and controls at the port of Strasbourg

Two reports point to “regulatory gaps” in the supervision of the handling of ammonium nitrates, these potentially explosive fertilizers, in river ports. The Autonomous Port of Strasbourg is the second largest river port in France.

The explosion, on August 4, 2020, of a stock of technical ammonium nitrate (dedicated to the manufacture of explosives) in the port of Beirut, causing the death of 215 people, had the effect of an electric shock . On September 30, 2020, the Ministry for Ecological Transition commissioned the General Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development (CGEDD) and the General Council for the Economy (CGE) to draw up an inventory of “the management of the risk linked the presence of ammonium nitrates, (nitrogen fertilizers made from ammonium nitrate, editor’s note), in sea and river ports in France. France is the leading consumer of ammonium nitrates in Western Europe. These fertilizers are mainly used for agricultural purposes.

Medium and high dosage: the different ammonium nitrates

Ammonitrates are nitrogen fertilizers made from ammonium nitrate, the material implicated in the Beirut port explosion. A distinction must be made between medium-dose ammonitrates, composed of less than 80% ammonium nitrate, and those with high doses, which contain more than 80% of the explosive agent. The former are not recognized as hazardous materials. The latter, if improperly stored and subjected to a risk of contamination or caught in a fire, can explode and cause considerable damage. In September 2001, 31 people lost their lives in the explosion at the AZF factory in Toulouse. The cause of the disaster: a stock of 300 to 400 tonnes of contaminated high-dose ammonium nitrate.

“Regulatory loopholes”

In their conclusions, delivered on May 21, 2021, the CGEDD experts describe the situation in river ports as “artisanal” and point to “regulatory gaps” which leave the field open to potentially dangerous practices. The authors recall:

“If the probability of occurrence of an accident is low, the danger (significance of damage in the event of an accident) is high. An explosion of even a limited stock of high-dose ammonium nitrates can cause considerable damage. »

Four senators, based in part on the data and analyzes of the CGEDD, also published an information report on the subject on July 6, 2022. They confirm the lightness of the regulatory framework governing the traffic of ammonium nitrates in river ports and call for its strengthening. The situation in seaports is “satisfactory”, according to the rapporteurs.

Parcel data

According to CGEDD estimates, based on partial import figures, 50,000 tonnes of imported high-dose ammonium nitrate transit each year by river in France, which represents a minority share of overall traffic. There are no precise data, either at national or local level, on the nature and quantities of ammonium nitrates circulating by river.

“In 2021, hazardous materials represent less than 2% of all goods transiting through the Port of Strasbourg”, indicates Pauline Jacquet, head of port promotion at the Autonomous Port of Strasbourg (PAS), the second largest river port in France. No distinction is made between “hazardous materials”.

“The weakness of the regulatory framework concerning the handling of hazardous materials in river ports does not allow effective control of these operations in these infrastructures. »

Ammonitrates circulating incognito

“On the north and south terminals, 100% owned by the port, strict security rules apply. A risk prevention plan governs the way in which we process and manage the goods, the storage areas and the fire protection devices attached to them,” says Pauline Jacquet.

Five hundred companies are located in the Autonomous Port of Strasbourg. Ammonitrate shipments pass directly through these sites, and are not subject to the same rules as at the terminals. The regulations provide that the prefect defines the places where one has the right to load and unload hazardous materials in the port.

An event recounted in the CGEDD report demonstrates, however, that shipments of ammonium nitrates can slip through the cracks:

“It was also reported that the firefighters had discovered the presence of nearly 480 t of big bags of high-dose ammonium nitrate on the site of a cooperative operating grain silos in the port of Strasbourg when they went there to put out a fire in a silo. This use of a port wharf to unload hazardous materials was unknown both to the management of the port of Strasbourg and to all State services. »

According to concordant sources, this situation refers to the explosion of the Silorins cereal silo, belonging to the Comptoir agricole Strasbourg, which occurred on June 6, 2018. Contacted, the Comptoir agricole Strasbourg did not respond to our interview requests.

“During a control on the water, we ask the teams to provide us with all the mandatory documents relating to the transport of dangerous materials. We check if the fire extinguishing systems are ready to operate, if equipment such as face masks are present, etc. When we are at the quay, it takes more time to carry out a complete check. Ammonitrate shipments are treated no differently than any other hazardous material. We work closely with the Dreal services and sometimes do checks together. »

A lack of controls in river ports

During their hearing by the Senate on December 1, 2021, transcribed in the appendix to the Senate report, two authors of the CGEDD report, Michel Pascal and Jérôme Goellner, both general engineers of Mines, believe that the checks carried out by the Dreal in the ports rivers are insufficient. Michel Pascal specifies:

“The problem of Strasbourg and Elbeuf is not a question of human resources. A visit once a year takes little time. The DREAL could take care of it. But she doesn’t. »

And Jérôme Goellner adds:

“Land transport controllers control the transport of hazardous materials. They depend on the DREALs. Their priority is the road. They control a lot of trucks, a few railway lines and very few waterways, the ports coming under the captaincies. It would not be very complicated to do some checks in the ports, and it would not require a lot of people. »

Contacted on this subject, the prefecture did not respond to our interview requests.

No regulatory changes for the moment

The CGEDD issues recommendations to improve the situation, particularly in river ports. They aim on the one hand to strengthen the monitoring and control of hazardous materials, and on the other hand to align the regulations of river ports in this area with the stricter ones that apply to seaports.

Since May 2021, the date of publication of the CGEDD report, there have been no regulatory changes further regulating the trafficking of high-dose ammonium nitrate on rivers and in river ports. A government decree was issued on February 7, 2022. It strengthens the framework for the handling of hazardous materials in… maritime ports.

The question of doing without ammonium nitrate, because of the safety risks that this material poses to the population, has arisen for many countries. Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Australia, Turkey, China and India have banned high-dose ammonitrates on their soils, or have subject their use to “draconian rules”, note the experts of the CGEDD.

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