Smoke continues to rise from Beirut port silos nearly a week after fire broke out

An August 2020 blast at the port killed at least 215 people and injured more than 7,000

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Smoke continued to rise from wheat silos at Beirut’s port on Wednesday afternoon, nearly a week after the first in a series of small fires broke out at the location in the Lebanese capital.

Authorities have blamed the blazes on the summer heat and the fermenting wheat at the bottom of the silos.

A fire first broke out at the site last Thursday and was rekindled on Monday and Tuesday night, while smoke has been seen regularly rising from the silos.

An August 2020 blast at the port killed at least 215 people and injured more than 7,000. The explosion occurred after a massive stock of ammonium nitrate, which had been sitting at the port for years, caught fire.

The inability of authorities to tackle the fires has been criticised by the families of the victims of the 2020 explosion and other groups, who said the fire was at risk of spreading and further damaging the silos.

The fire has the potential to damage the health of those living nearby, they said, as they are unable to close their windows due to the heat.

“What is surprising in this matter is that those concerned did not move a finger to take any action to put out this fire and investigate its causes,” the groups said.

Omar Itani, director general of the port, has said it is unsafe for firefighters to get too close to the silos and that it would take a complex operation to extinguish the flames.

The silos remain a highly sensitive topic in Lebanon. The 2020 explosion has been blamed on mismanagement and corruption, and is viewed as a symptom of the country's many systemic problems.

In April, the Lebanese Cabinet approved the demolition of the silos, which were badly damaged in the 2020 explosion, after a survey found that they could collapse in the coming months.

But opponents of the government decision want the silos to remain as a memorial to those who died.

Mr Itani said on Monday that a report claiming the demolition had already started was false.

An investigation into the explosion by judge Tarek Bitar has struggled to make headway amid repeated delays. Two sitting MPs in the Lebanese Parliament have been charged in connection with the investigation but have refused to attend interrogation hearings.

A group of blast victims has filed a $250 million lawsuit against US-Norwegian company TGS for its links to the blast.

The claim, filed in the US state of Texas last week, says TGS owned the British firm Spectrum Geo, which chartered the ship carrying the ammonium nitrate that was unloaded at Beirut port a decade ago.

Among the plaintiffs is Sarah Copland, whose 2-year-old son Isaac was killed in the blast. She said the lawsuit was “a step forward in the pursuit of justice”.

Swiss foundation Accountability Now, which is assisting the nine plaintiffs, said Spectrum Geo had entered into a “series of highly profitable but suspicious contracts” with Lebanon’s energy ministry.

“The benefit of these contracts for the Lebanese people remains unclear. It is in the performance of its 2012 contract that Spectrum chartered the derelict Moldovan-flagged vessel Rhosus to come to Beirut while carrying 2,750 tonnes of military-grade ammonium nitrate,” the foundation said.

“For nearly two years, plaintiffs have watched helplessly as the same corrupt political environment in which the Beirut blast occurred continue to delay justice for the victims.”

A spokesperson on behalf of TGS said in a statement sent to The National: “TGS was made aware of the lawsuit filed in Texas state court, although we have not been formally served. A response to the lawsuit will be filed once we are formally served. We deny each and every allegation raised in the lawsuit, and intend to vigorously defend this matter in court.

"The allegations in the lawsuit attempt to draw a connection to a survey conducted in Lebanon in 2013 by a subcontractor on behalf of Spectrum. Following the incident in 2020, there were inquiries about the survey conducted in 2013. At that time, a comprehensive investigation was conducted, which confirmed that Spectrum acted diligently in its conduct of the survey and had no responsibility for the explosion. We are confident that we will prevail in this matter.”

Updated: July 15, 2022, 2:46 PM
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