Could it happen here? US ports are safer than Beirut, but dangerous cargoes present constant risk — no matter the location

Those who wonder whether a chemical explosion like the one that leveled the port of Beirut, Lebanon, and killed more than 100 could happen in the U.S. should consider what happened one spring day in 1947 in the port of Texas City, Texas.

Cargo in the hold of the freighter Grandcamp started smoking. Flames erupted and a blast so powerful that it could be heard more than 100 miles away destroyed the ship, docks and an adjoining Monsanto chemical plant. 

The explosion killed more than 500 people — the exact number was hard to determine because many bodies couldn’t be recovered — making it one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. The chemical product that exploded on the ship was the same as the one in the Beirut warehouse, ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizer.

The accident underscores the point that U.S. ports aren’t immune to the kind of destruction that was wrought a half a world away in Beirut.

A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020.

In ports, threats come in all forms. Potentially explosive cargo may be petroleum, liquified natural gas, chemicals or something else. Fire or an explosion can occur in a single container or in a supertanker. On land, it can be in a storage facility, a huge refinery or another industrial complex that’s part of the port complex.

But port officials say the public should have little worry. In the U.S., transportation of all those cargoes is covered by myriad federal and state regulations. And those laws are backed by a web of inspection agencies, the Coast Guard being chief among them.

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U.S. ports are generally modern, having long torn down the warehouses like the one in Beirut. The emphasis is on moving containers directly from the ship to ground transport as quickly as possible, cutting out the warehouse wait. Warehouses were raised to make way for railroad tracks or other container processing space.

Port officials in the two of the nation’s busiest ports say safety is always the top priority.

“We will do whatever we can to mitigate risk,” Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, California, told USA TODAY. “We have a 100% effort to implement appropriate firewalls to mitigate anything that can happen.”

He added that the port built a new security center to coordinate with the various agencies that have jurisdiction for port security, from the Coast Guard to FBI, and has taken additional steps like having two large, modern fireboats. “We are very proud of our safety record but on the other hand, we’re vigilant,” Cordero added.

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On the opposite coast, Sam Ruda, port director of the Port of New York and New Jersey, said his agency approaches hazardous cargo with the same high priority.

“The Port of New York and New Jersey takes dangerous goods extremely seriously,” Ruda said in a statement. “The port has regulations and fire safety protocols in place limiting the types and amounts of those materials that may be stored, used or transferred through port facilities.”

The port says that any cargo considered dangerous is subject to Coast Guard inspection, is segregated from other goods and kept in small amounts. 

The goods must be stored within 500 feet of a fire extinguisher. The port also says it doesn’t take dangerous cargoes in bulk.

Smoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego ion Sunday.

But the hazards that come with ports became national news last month when fire broke out aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard as the amphibious assault ship underwent maintenance at a San Diego pier.

The fire burned for four days, hitting temperatures of 1,000 degrees below deck. Smoke and debris prompted complaints in nearby communities and samples showed the emissions contained toxic chemicals, the San Diego Union Tribune reported.

Ship explosions cause major damage. The tanker Sansinena blew up in Los Angeles harbor in 1976, breaking the ship in two, a blast that broke windows in the residential area next to the port, San Pedro. It was felt 20 miles away.

The most deadly ship explosion?

It occurred 103 years ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when a French ammunition ship, the Mont Blanc, blew up after catching fire in the collision with another vessel. The blast. coming during World War I leveled much of the city, killing 1,800 and wounding 9,000.

But Texas City’s agony would be repeated again nearly a century later.

In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in the city killed 15 and injured at least 170. 

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