Why Chennai Must Safely Dispose of 740 Tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate

Nearly 740 tonnes of the explosive chemical, ammonium nitrate has been stored over 20 kms from Chennai, since 2015.

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Just two days after large amounts of ammonium nitrate caused a catastrophe, killing at least 135 people and injuring about 5,000 in Beirut, concerns have been raised about the chemical stored in Chennai.

Where Is This Explosive Chemical Stored?

Nearly 740 tonnes of the explosive chemical has been stored within the premises of Sattva Container Freight Station in Ponneri High Road, Manali, Thiruvottiyur Taluk. This is over 20 kms from the Chennai centre.

Nearly 740 tonnes of the explosive chemical has been stored within the premises of Sattva Container Freight Station in Ponneri High Road, Manali, Thiruvottiyur Taluk.
Nearly 740 tonnes of the explosive chemical has been stored within the premises of Sattva Container Freight Station in Ponneri High Road, Manali, Thiruvottiyur Taluk.
(Photo: The Quint)

How Did This Chemical Get Accumulated Here?

Customs officials said this large consignment of the chemical was seized at the Chennai port in 2015 from Sri Amman Chemicals, Karur due to import policy restrictions. The ammonium nitrate was transported from the port and stored in the premises since 27 September 2015 in crystallised form in 25kg polypropylene bags.

A report by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board stated that there are 37 containers, each having 20 tonnes stored within the premises of Sattva Container Freight stations.

“Deputy chief general of explosives has made a preliminary inspection to assess the safety of the materials kept here. We will take safety measures till the disposal of the stock,” said Balakrishnan, Chennai Joint Commissioner.

A report by TNPCB stated that there are 37 number of MS containers each having 20 tonnes stored within the premises of Sattva Container Freight stations.
A report by TNPCB stated that there are 37 number of MS containers each having 20 tonnes stored within the premises of Sattva Container Freight stations.
(Photo Courtesy: TNPCB Report)

Are There People Living Nearby?

The customs department issued a notice on 6 August that there are no residential localities within a two-kilometre radius. But an inspection by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s (TNPCB) on 6 August contradicting these claims.

The nearest residential locality is Manali New Town at a distance of 700 m with a population of about 7,000, and Sadayankuppam village, 1,500 m away, with a population of over 5,000, the report read.

The nearest residential locality is Manali New Town at a distance of 700 m with a population of about 7,000.
The nearest residential locality is Manali New Town at a distance of 700 m with a population of about 7,000.
(Photo Courtesy: Google Maps)
Sadayankuppam village, is 1,500 m away from the premises with a population of over 5,000.
Sadayankuppam village, is 1,500 m away from the premises with a population of over 5,000.
(Photo Courtesy: Google Maps)

How Dangerous is This?

Ammonium nitrate is a crystal-like white solid which is made in large industrial quantities used in fertilisers, create explosives for mining. It is synthetic, as it is made by reacting ammonia with nitric acid.

On its own, ammonium nitrate is relatively safe to handle.

The Quint spoke to Pradeep Professor of Chemistry at IIT Madras who explained that storing huge quantities of a chemical that is combustible is hazardous and should be avoided.

Why Chennai Must Safely Dispose of 740 Tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate

“One is a chemical reaction which releases the gas nitrous oxide and that temperature is fairly low, at 300 degrees. At a slightly higher temperature it releases nitrogen, oxygen and water. This is called thermal decomposition reaction,” he said.

He warned that a local increase in temperature and lax of appropriate protection can cause an explosion.

Raman Vaidyanathan, CEO of SynTech, a company that specialises in simulation software for training persons in industrial plants said the risk with storing the chemical in large quantities can be minimised.

“The risk of explosion increases by heating. If it comes in contact with fire or contamination, or in a narrow area, gas pipeline, faulty electrical equipment, it can lead to fire and then explode,” he said.

Why Chennai Must Safely Dispose of 740 Tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate

Who Have Called for an Immediate Clearance?

The massive explosions in Beirut, Lebanon showed that the impact of the blast was felt as far as 240 kilometres away.

Nataraj, Mylapore MLA and a Former DGP told The Quint how this poses as a huge risk as Manali is home to a number of chemical industries.

Why Chennai Must Safely Dispose of 740 Tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate

He said adequate security audit, social audit and evacuation drills need to be done as even “a short circuit somewhere can spark a whole tragedy”.

The TNPCB recommended that the District Industrial Safety and Health, Guindy inspect the CFS and more security personnel be engaged to safeguard the area till the clearance of the chemical.

MP Kanimozhi of DMK Called for action on a war-footing, taking public safety into consideration.

PMK Chief Dr Ramadoss on Thursday demanded safe disposal of the explosives and suggested that it could be used for other purposes like composting.

Are There Any Plans for Disposal?

The customs officials have denied any delay in disposal. They said an e-auction has already been completed and the disposal of the said cargo will be done following all safety measures. The TNPCB report, too, confirmed that the process will be completed in three days.

The customs officials have denied any delay in disposal.
The customs officials have denied any delay in disposal.
(Photo: The Quint)

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