Beirut port blast: French company to clear 30,000 tonnes of insect-infested grain

Ten months after the explosion, experts say the grain is a health hazard

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A French company is working to clear Beirut's port of up to 30,000 tonnes of grain, 10 months after a explosion rocked Beirut and destroyed the port's silos.

Environmental engineering company Recygroup International has identified a number of potential health risks caused by the piles of rotting grain.

"Insects and rats are feeding on the grain, which has been lying outside fermenting under the rain and now in the heat, spreading foul odours and germs," Benjamin Constant, one of the company's vice presidents, told The National during a visit to Beirut.

Temperatures in Beirut are expected to near 30°C by the end of the week, with high humidity levels.

The blast, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in recent history, killed more than 200 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes on August 4.

Lebanese authorities, who said the blast was caused by thousands of tonnes of poorly stored ammonium nitrate, are still investigating the disaster.

Recygroup International signed a contract valued at €1.4 million ($1.7 million) with the Lebanese Economy Ministry on May 6 during French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian's visit to the country.

With these funds, which were donated by the French government, Recygroup International will sanitise the leftover grain from the explosion with the help of local construction company Man Enterprise.

In early July, the company will set up a treatment centre at the port to spray the grain with fertiliser and separate it from port waste, including concrete and rocks.

The grain may then be used locally for different purposes, such as compost and fertiliser.

“We will guarantee that the grain is treated correctly, but we are not responsible for its distribution and storage,” said vice president Vianney Mercherz.

There are four kinds of material: metal, mineral matter such as concrete, mixed waste, and 600 to 700 old cars.

Built in 1968, the giant port silos are widely believed to have shielded Beirut from more destruction. They had a capacity of 120,000 tonnes and were the brainchild of Palestinian banker Yusuf Beidas.

Last August, caretaker economy minister Raoul Nehme said that the destroyed silos held 15,000 tonnes of grain at the time of the blast.

But Recygroup International believes between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes of grain, mostly wheat, are currently scattered around the port.

A number of foreign countries are involved in clearing the area, a prerequisite before reconstruction.

In the days and weeks after the explosion, the French army supported its Lebanese counterpart to render the port, via which most of the country's imports are moved, operational again.

In November, German company Combi Lift started removing the remaining hazardous material. in early May, a ship laden with more than 1,000 tonnes of dangerous chemicals left Beirut for Germany for treatment.

Rescue teams scour Beirut blast rubble

Rescue teams scour Beirut blast rubble

The previous month, German companies unveiled a $7.2 billion plan to revamp the port, but the proposal is tied to the Lebanese government implementing long-awaited reforms to increase transparency and fight corruption.

Such reforms are unlikely to be enacted any time soon. The government resigned after the blast, and President Michel Aoun and prime minister designate Saad Hariri have been bickering for almost nine months about how to distribute ministerial jobs in the new Cabinet despite the country's worsening economic crisis.

Lebanon is governed along sectarian lines. The country's many sects are represented proportionally in government and parliament.

In addition to treating the grain, Recygroup International has been working at the port for several months to identify waste and suggest ways of selling or upcycling it to local authorities.

Products that were stored at the port before the blast, including bags of salt, clothes, and paint, are jumbled together in large piles.

"There are four kinds of material: metal, mineral matter such as concrete, mixed waste, and 600 to 700 old cars," Mr Constant said.

The study, which was approved on January 15, is also financed by a donation from the French government valued at €820,000.

Port authorities are evaluating their options and expect a final report from Recygroup International in mid-July, said port director Bassam Al Qaissi.

“Do you remove parts from the cars and sell them separately or sell the car [as a whole]? These are the kinds of scenarios we’re looking at,” he said.

Mr Al Qaissi spoke to The National hours before his successor, Omar Itani, was officially appointed on Thursday afternoon.

He became port director in the days after the blast but for health reasons  did not renew his mandate on May 14.

Hassan Koraytem, Mr Al Qaissi’s predecessor, is in pretrial detention along with 19 other port officials and employees.

Last month, a judicial source told The National that new charges are expected in the coming weeks.