06 August 2020

Beirut Port Tragedy : Law relating to Dangerous Goods - The IMDG Code

The tragedy at Beirut on 5 August 2020 highlights what happens when dangerous chemicals are not stored with care. The explosion, tore through the city and, registering a force as strong as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake. Residents claimed that the scenes looked “like an apocalypse,” and that the port was “totally destroyed.” This was not the first time such incidents occurred in the Ports. 

On August 12, 2015, a series of explosions killed 173 people, and injured hundreds of others at a container storage station at the Port of Tianjin. There was an earlier incident that occurred on April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City, Texas, at Galveston Bay. It was one of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, ultimately killing at least 581 people.

Both the Texas tragedy and the tragedy at Beirut Port involved the same chemicals. On its own ammonium nitrate is not considered dangerous, but can be lethal under certain conditions – and needs to be treated with care to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

The International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code or IMDG Code first published in 1965 is an International Maritime Organisation Code that prescribes guidelines for the safe preparation, storage, and handling of transportation and shipment of dangerous goods or hazardous materials. The IMDG Code divides Dangerous Goods into 9 Classes, with different attributes and labeling and each will have their unique UN Number.

Both crew and shore-based personnel are required to undergo training to handle Dangerous Goods, The Shipper or Forwarder on their behalf has to prepare Material Safety Data Sheets relating to the attributes of the Dangerous Goods.

Additionally, common law imposes duty of care under the tort of negligence. The English Court of Appeal case of Beckett v Newalls Insulation Co Ltd and Another [1953] citing Winfield on the Law of Tort, 5th ed said:

“It is true that the law expects of a man a great deal more care in carrying a pound of dynamite than a pound of butter, or in keeping a bottle of poison than a bottle of lemonade”.

In the Malaysian Admiralty Court case of The Ing Hua Fu, the Forwarder declared the Classes and UN Nos of the Dangerous Chemicals to the load port authorities without any appreciation of the significance and he did not have a copy of the IMDG Code and he simply forwarded the information given by the Shipper. The Forwarder declared the same chemicals to the Shipping agent for purposes of the carriage and preparation of the bill of lading as innocuous Agrochemicals. The chemicals caught fire and sank the carrying vessel within 20 minutes. The failure to declare was held to be a negligent act by the Forwarder.

The Admiralty Court decision was set aside by the Court of Appeal on appeal but on different grounds, which did not affect the pronouncements on the IMDG Code and parties obligations under the same.

In the incident at the Beirut Port, the blast was likely caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the dock since being confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014, according to Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi. The loss of human lives and devastation in Lebanon is still being counted.

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