Costs soar for German company in Beirut port clean-up

Hazardous materials found after blast include a container of matches that will be disposed of locally

epa09171244 The Amoenitas ship at the Beirut port in Beirut, Lebanon, 01 May 2021. An Amoenitas ship prepares to ferry dozens of containers of hazardous materials from the Lebanese capital to Germany after the eight months of the explosion at Beirut port on 04 August 2020. At least 200 people were killed, and more than six thousand injured in the Beirut blast that devastated the port area on 04 August. It is believed to have been caused by an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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The German company that removed more than 1,000 tonnes of dangerous chemicals from Beirut port said its costs in the operation soared after finding more hazardous material than expected.

The Lebanese government contracted heavy lift transport company Combi Lift to clear the port of hazardous chemicals after thousands of tonnes of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate exploded on August 4, killing more than 200 people and destroying large areas of the capital.

A local investigation, which has been marred by political interference, is ongoing.

Under the contract signed last November, Lebanon would pay $2 million for the disposal of 49 20-foot (six metre) shipping containers. Combi Lift agreed to shoulder the rest of the cost, estimated at the time to amount to $1.6 million.

But there were more hazardous materials at the port than anticipated.

The firm cleared 72 containers of waste in total, including 13 40ft containers. The company also repacked the equivalent of two containers of acid that were scattered in the port.

"All kinds of chemicals were leaking together, it was really uncontrollable," Combi Lift chief executive Heiko Felderhoff told The National. "The threat was enormous."

He said that Combi Lift treated the extra chemicals free of charge, although it cost the company close to $2 million more than initially planned.

Fifty-nine containers of waste left Beirut aboard the ship Amoenitas on Wednesday for a 10-day journey to the German coastal city of Wilhelmshaven.

"It was clear that the company needed to help. It was no doubt the right thing to do" 
Combi Lift CEO Heiko Felderhoff

Mr Felderhoff said the chemicals would be incinerated at three disposal facilities in Germany.

Lebanese companies will treat the 13 containers left behind in Beirut.

Although these mostly hold non-hazardous material such as cardboard carton, one container is full of matches, said Mary El Jalkh, Lebanese German Business Council executive director, a private association that facilitated Combi Lift’s work in Lebanon.

"If you have more than 5kg, it's considered dangerous, and we have a container of 40 feet full of matches," Ms El Jalkh told The National.

The 1989 international Basel Convention on hazardous waste stipulates that it must be disposed of in the country of origin when possible.

Combi Lift finished its work by early March, but the departure of the Amoenitas was delayed because of payment issues.

New-York bank JP Morgan refused to issue the letter of credit guaranteeing Lebanon's $2m payment, said two Lebanese sources. JP Morgan declined to comment.

Banks issue letters of credit to serve as guarantee for payments. This is common in cash-strapped Lebanon.

The issue was solved about two weeks ago when US Commerce Bank agreed to sign the letter of credit, the sources said. Commerce Bank did not reply to a request for comment.

“The issue is not whether or not they opened a letter of credit,” one of the sources said.

“The issue is that the courageous government with the president of Lebanon and the prime minister took the decision to hire this company [Combi Lift]. They packed dangerous material that could have caused another accident or explosion."

The Lebanese government is expected to pay $1m after the containers leave Beirut, and $1m once the waste is disposed of in Germany.

Combi Lift plans to continue working in Lebanon. Discussions are ongoing to secure international financing for the removal of chemicals from an oil refinery in Tripoli that was damaged during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war and ceased operation soon after, the company said.

Despite the unexpected increase in the cost of cleaning Beirut’s port, Mr Felderhoff said that “he would do it again”.

“I came one week after the blast. Seeing all the mess, it was clear that the company needed to help. It was no doubt the right thing to do,” he said.