Silos demolition, a bone of contention two years after the Beirut port explosion
The Lebanese cabinet wants to tear down the huge containers, damaged by the blast that killed more than 220 people. For the families of the victims, the silos should be preserved as a memorial. A fire broke out caused by fermenting grains, which cannot be put out, with a real possibility that the northern part may collapse. Meanwhile, the investigation into the explosion has a hit a wall.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon will hold a Day of National Mourning on 4 August, the second anniversary of the explosion of a warehouse in the port of Beirut that contained hundreds of tonnes of poorly stored ammonium nitrate. More than 220 people died in the incident with some 6,500 injured; entire neighbourhoods of the Lebanese capital were devastated.
The blast also hit the port’s giant grain silos, located in front of the warehouse, which partially collapsed. Since then, they have become the symbols of the tragedy, and are now at the centre of a controversy as to whether they should be demolished or not.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the causes of the explosion has been held up for months due to political interference.
Over the past few months, the fate of the silos has been an open question. On 16 March, Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and his cabinet opted for their demolition, a decision that was questioned only two days later by Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada, who decided that the silos should be preserved as a memorial in accordance with the wishes of the victims’ families.
On 14 April, the cabinet revisited the issue, tasking the Council for Development and Reconstruction with the demolition. After that, the matter seemed to have died down, until, that is, a fire broke out in the northern part of the silos.
The prime minister, who backs tearing down the structure, seized the opportunity and warned that the “silos in the northern part are likely to collapse,” citing the environment minister.
The fire, according to experts, was caused by methane fumes from the fermentation of the remaining grain stocks, combined with high temperatures. For the authorities, some parts of the silos still contain between 3,000 and 6,000 tonnes of wheat and other grains that could not be removed due to the danger of collapse.
For the relatives of the victims, the fire reopened not-so-old wounds. Contrary to what Assaad Haddad, General Manager at Beirut Port Grain Silos, believes, namely that the fire will not damage the structure of the silos, Beirut MP Paula Yacoubian has accused the government of waiting for the metal components to meld so that the silos will collapse on their own, facilitating their demolition. For his part, the cabinet said to let the “fire go out on its own”.
"We know that trying to extinguish the fire with water could speed up the grain fermentation process and fuel the methane fumes," Yacoubian said, "but if the government acted in good faith, it could extinguish the fire with dry ice."
Yacoubian's intervention seems to be late, though. The northern part of the silos has been irreparably weakened and is starting to tilt at a rate of 2-2.5 millimetres per hour. However, if this section does collapse, it does not follow that all the silos will.
While waiting for an unpredictable collapse, the cabinet is seriously working on a controlled demolition of the silos. Experts envisage two methods: implosion by explosives installed inside the giant columns or a steel ball.
Inevitably, some believe, this will impact the immediate environment and human health because of all the dust, with the risk of potentially toxic asbestos particles spreading across a wide area. Opponents of the demolition question the claim that asbestos is present.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the explosion, led by Judge Tarek Bitar, has been stalled for months. Several ministers summoned by the magistrate raised formal objections and paralysed the process, blaming “criminal negligence”.