The explosions that rocked Beirut on August 4, 2020 resulted in widespread destruction and mounting human loss. More than 300,000 people have been displaced, more than 5,000 were injured and over 150 have lost their lives so far.
The causes of the blasts are yet to be determined, but are linked to a 2,750-tonne ammonium nitrate shipment seized in 2013 and stored in the port’s “Hangar 12” since 2014. The dangerous material can be employed as fertilizer as well as a component of explosive mixtures.
Over the last 100 years, a variety of shipping and port-related disasters have been linked to ammonium nitrate, from the BASF Germany Oppau disaster in 1921 to the fire aboard the MV Cheshire in 2017, south of the Canary Islands.
The dangerous properties of ammonium nitrate have been known for decades, causing the insurance premiums to move and store it to increase dramatically. Mainly for this reason, its popularity as a fertilizer has decreased over the years. However, Latin America still imports considerable amounts. So the question can be raised: what would be the scale of destruction on some of the main ports in the region, if a massive explosion similar to the one in Beirut were to happen?
For this exercise we have selected six major ports located in urban areas: Santos (Brazil), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Montevideo (Uruguay), Callao (Peru), San Antonio (Chile) and Veracruz (Mexico). According to the blast radius estimates provided by local authorities, a radius of 500m will be considered area of widespread destruction, then 5km for heavily damaged areas and 12km for areas where some damage was reported. As expected, most casualties happen within the “widespread destruction” area. It should be noted that the amount of destruction depends on many factors such as topography and built structures profiles. This is an illustrative exercise.
Most dry bulk terminals at the Santos Port are located along the left bank of the estuary (Guarujá). The blast would wipe out adjacent communities and cause major destruction in most of Santos and Guarujá. Adjacent cities such as Praia Grande and São Vicente would also be affected. However, many terminals are located further upriver (such a the ones along the Piaçaguera canal) and would likely remain online after minor repairs.
Buenos Aires has two main distinct port areas. One to the north of the revitalized Puerto Madero, where the APM Terminals and TRP (DP World) container terminals are located. The other cluster, south of Puerto Madero, is the Dock Sud area, where the YPF and Exolgan terminals are located. Buenos Aires is not a relevant import destination for fertilizers anymore. The main facilities for this are located along the west bank of the Paraná River and down south in Quequén. However, a blast near the Dock Sud estuary would impact most of the city’s core infrastructure and heavily populated areas. This would be further aggravated by the proximity of a variety of liquid bulk flammable facilities nearby.
Similarly to Argentina, in Uruguay the main dry bulk import facilities are not located in the capital’s port. Nueva Palmira is the main hub for this. However, Montevideo does have fertilizer import facilities and the blast in the port would cause at least some kind of damage practically to the whole city.
The blast would cause heavy damage to Callao itself, as well as considerable effects on Peru’s capital, Lima. However, the city’s vast expanse would render many areas undamaged, including the affluent Miraflores. The San Lorenzo island, a wildlife sanctuary, would likely suffer loss of life too.
The capitals of both Chile and Mexico are located further inland, far from the ocean. They therefore are shielded from any non-nuclear explosion along their respective coasts. However, San Antonio would be engulfed by the shock wave, with almost the entirety of the city inside the heavily damaged zone. Chile’s busiest port would be left in ruins.
The historic city of Veracruz has over 800,000 inhabitants in its metropolitan area. The city’s vast multipurpose port is a top player in all types of cargoes in Mexico. A blast there would destroy most of the port, heavily damage the Navy’s base nearby and the entirety of the city center. Some type of damage would be reported in all neighborhoods.
Three conclusions can be drawn from this analysis. The first is that ports that are more spread out (such as Buenos Aires and Santos) would be more resilient, since they would have part of the facilities located outside of the heavily damaged area. The second is that an explosion the size of the one in Beirut would cause some kind of damage in the entirety of 4 of the cities considered, with only Buenos Aires and Lima being large enough to have unspoiled neighborhoods. The best is, therefore, to move dangerous cargo handling out of urban areas. However, the third conclusion is the most important: all safety procedures for dangerous cargo should be revised and thoroughly implemented in all ports, so that such a catastrophe shall not repeat itself again anywhere.
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