700 Tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate Stored in Chennai Safe, E-auction Done: Customs after Beirut Blast

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Customs authorities on Thursday sought to allay fears over safety regarding the storage of nearly 700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at a container freight station near Chennai.

The storage became a cause for serious concern in the backdrop of the explosion of the chemical in the Lebanese capital city of Beirut on Tuesday, which killed 135 people and injured around 4,000.

The chemical worth Rs 1.80 crore was seized from a Tamil Nadu-based importer in 2015 who had allegedly declared it as fertiliser grade although it was an explosive grade, a Customs official said.

But the consignment, imported from South Korea, was safe and an e-auction process was on to clear it, he said.

Later on Thursday, the Customs Department said the e-auction has been completed. "The disposal process of the cargo taken promptly and e-auction has already been completed. The disposal will be done within a short period following all safety measures," it said.

Meanwhile, the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs has directed field offices to verify within 48 hours that all explosive materials lying in Customs warehouses and ports meet safety and fire standards and pose no danger to people's lives.

"CBIC has urgently directed Customs and field formations to immediately confirm and verify within 48 hours that any hazardous and explosive material lying in warehouses and ports across the country meets all safety and fire standards and presents no danger to life and property," the CBIC said in a tweet.

The Customs' clarification comes in the wake of reports that huge quantities of the chemical substance being stored in Chennai could be a risk even as political party Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) asked the government to ensure its safe disposal.

"The goods are safe and pose no danger," said a senior Customs department official when asked about the fears of safety in the backdrop of the devastating Beirut explosion.

On condition of anonymity, the official said the sleuths in November 2015 had seized 697 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in 37 containers valued at Rs 1.80 crore from the importer.

"The importer had misdeclared the goods as ammonium nitrate of fertiliser grade whereas on examination it was found to be of explosive grade and that (the importer) had not followed the Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012," he said.

The containers were seized and have been since lying at a container freight station in the city while the licence of the importer had been cancelled.

While seven tonnes of the chemical got spoiled during the deluge in December 2015, the remaining 690 tonnes were under process of e-auctioning, he said.

Earlier on Thursday, PMK founder S Ramadoss urged the government to take immediate steps to safely dispose of the ammonium nitrate, saying a possible Beirut-like incident should be avoided.

Expressing concern over the reported huge quantity of the seized chemical kept at the freight station here since 2015, he said the uncleared substance could be a risk and that it should be safely disposed of and utilised for purposes like composting.

Tuesday's explosion in Lebanon's port city of Beirut killed 135 people and injured about 4,000. Buildings were damaged for miles around the city after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilisers, stored at the facility for six years, reportedly caused the explosion.

(With inputs from PTI)