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.
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.
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”.
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