Efforts to extinguish Beirut port fire 'risk causing grain silos to collapse'

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

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A fire that broke out a week ago at a grain silo at Beirut’s port will continue to burn while there is wheat trapped inside, Lebanon’s caretaker economy minister has said.

But Amin Salam, during a tour of the port, said it was a “complicated situation” and that efforts to extinguish the flames risked causing the silos to collapse.

For instance, he said an operation by a military helicopter could cause the fire to spread because of a change in air pressure.

The silos were heavily damaged in the August 2020 blast at the port that 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.

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

“There have been fires like this before, and will continue as long as there are grains fermenting inside,” Mr Salam said.

He said the caretaker government is “studying the best way to treat the situation without resorting to haphazard decisions or demolition”.

Removing grain from the silos could mean they collapse, he added.

Authorities have banned anyone from going too close to the silos.

The silos remain a 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 many, including families of the victims, want the silos to remain as a memorial.

Mark Daou and Najat Saliba, two opposition MPs from the Taqqadom party also toured the site on Thursday. Taqqadom said it would continue to follow up on the fire to ensure it is not used as a “pretext to demolish the ‘silent witness,’” in reference to the silos.

An investigation into the port 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 they have refused to attend interrogation hearings.

Updated: July 14, 2022, 3:49 PM
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