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Port Tampa Bay safety officials hope to learn from Beirut port explosion

For a blast that big, "there's not really a plan," said a fire official. Otherwise, there are plenty of safety procedures in place.

When Mark Dubina saw footage of a cataclysmic explosion at a port in Beirut, Lebanon on Monday, he found it as shocking as anyone.

“I can’t imagine not being taken aback by that,” he said. “The force and the enormity of that explosion, obviously, is significant. The fact that it appears it came from a source that was just sitting in the city certainly gives you pause for thought and for concern.”

Dubina is the vice president of security at Port Tampa Bay, which traffics millions of tons of hazardous materials in and out of Tampa every year, including fuel, phosphates and anhydrous ammonia used in fertilizers.

While Lebanese authorities have not yet identified the cause of the explosion, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said early Wednesday that it involved 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that may have been improperly stored at a port warehouse. By comparison, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing utilized about two tons of ammonium nitrate.

This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
This photo shows a general view of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein) [ BILAL HUSSEIN | AP ]
Related: Lebanese confront devastation after massive Beirut explosion

It is too early, Dubina said, to know what lessons Port Tampa Bay might take from the Lebanese explosion, especially since the ports operate under very different regulations.

But with port facilities so close to downtown Tampa and other neighborhoods, the blast was a sobering reminder of the devastation a major incident could cause.

“You’re getting up into that nuclear blast-type stuff, when you’re talking about thousands of tons of material,” said Mark Bogush, Tampa Fire Rescue’s Assistant Chief of Special Operations, including its hazardous materials response unit. “There’s not really a plan for that. Because if you get a building that’s holding 2,000-plus tons of ammonium nitrate, and it catches fire, the best thing you can do is grab your dog and run as fast as you can.”

Port Tampa Bay handles 37 million tons of cargo each year, including around 17 million tons of oil and fuel — the most of any commodity — and 8 million tons of phosphate products.

Three terminals at the port handle and store high volumes of anhydrous ammonia and liquid ammonia, both of which are extremely hazardous when touched or inhaled, but not as combustible as ammonium nitrate, Bogush said.

“The only ammonium nitrate that comes through the port is the already produced product that gets shipped through in bags and barrels,” Bogush said. “They have a certain amount that they’re only permitted to ship through, and they adhere to that. That’s strictly watched over by the feds.”

Related: Texas explosion puts Tampa Bay companies using anhydrous ammonia on heightened alert

Emergency, customs and defense agencies work with the port and its tenants on safety procedures, from mapping trucking routes through neighborhoods to designing new facilities for loading and unloading hazardous materials. Ultimately, though, port tenants run their own safety procedures, including reporting breaches of hazardous material.

Over the years, the port has seen emergencies caused by everything from residents digging or drilling into gas pipes. In 2013, a fire in a fertilizer tank caused a chemical cloud that forced downtown and Harbour Island residents to shelter indoors.

A report by the Tampa Bay Local Emergency Planning Committee, updated last summer, said that a major anhydrous ammonium release would pose a “high risk” to a half-million residents. But despite small ammonia leaks here and there, “there is no reason to conclude ... that a catastrophic event will occur” there.

If it does, the city has a regularly tested alarm system that can be deployed whenever an incident calls for it. And the port has multiple public and private emergency response agencies ready to respond, depending on the type of material released.

“When you have a high concentration of anything that’s hazardous, there are multiple layers of security and safety protocols that go into handling that material,” Dubina said, “because everybody’s learned over time what happens if you don’t do things properly.”

Dubina expects reports from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies about what may have caused the Beirut explosion, and if any similar factors might be at play in Tampa.

“Did they follow established protocols? I think that’s the most important lesson we can take away from any major incident,” Dubina said. “After everything clears, was there anything that was done that would have mitigated that? It’s a good opportunity for us to evaluate what we and our tenants are doing.”

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