Deadly Sitakunda container depot fire

Published : 09 Jun 2022 07:37 PM | Updated : 09 Jun 2022 07:37 PM

According to the 'International Maritime Dangerous Goods or IMDG Code' made by the International Maritime Organization for dangerous goods, dangerous products such as chemicals should be stored separately in container depots. Also, there is an obligation to manage these products with trained staff. 

The code is part of the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea. Bangladesh has signed the Convention. This code contains a list of nine categories of products. It contains many products, including chemicals, explosives, hazardous gases, flammable liquids and solids, toxic, radioactive, and oxidants.  These products can be harmful to health and the environment when exposed to other substances. The IMDG Code has a policy on what steps will be taken to protect these products starting from transportation. However, the International Maritime Organization has pointed out the shortcomings in implementing the IMDG Code policy in Bangladesh. 

Necessary measures must be taken at depots and factories 

to prevent ignition of dangerous chemicals

In 2017, the organization’s audit report mentioned the deficit in 17 issues of the maritime sector, including this code. The Ministry of Shipping has been asked to set up a 'competent authority' to monitor the deficit. 

The National Board of Revenue (NBR) formulated a policy for the establishment and operation of container depots. This policy was changed and enlarged in 2016. In 2021, the NBR issued new policies and propaganda. Nowhere in the latest policy is anything specific about the storage, storage and supply of chemical products. 

According to the source, the ICD policy states that the ISPS code should be followed in the management of depots. The code, drafted by the International Maritime Organization, sets out the security arrangements for ports and port partners. 

In a circular issued in 2021, it is stated in Article 'C' of condition 5 of the ICD regarding safety and security measures; additional government security measures should be ensured by allocating separate areas for storage of unique products related to high security such as currency security paper, stamp paper etc.

 Article 'D’ states that the necessary facilities for firefighting must be ensured following the conditions specified by the Department of Firefighting and Civil Defense. However, there is no specific paragraph or instruction on the policy's storage and supply of chemical products. 

A study by the International Labor Organization on health and safety in Bangladesh shows that most of the safety risks here are preventable. Major disasters can be avoided if employers and employees take some simple safety measures. First of all, a health and safety policy has to be formulated.

It is initially assumed that a chemical called hydrogen peroxide in the BM container depot came in contact with the fire and formed an explosion. Although hydrogen peroxide is not combustible, it acts as an explosive in thermal decomposition when heated. 

There are now 19 such container depots in Bangladesh. Again Private Inland Container Depot (ICD) does not have any specific policy for the storage and supply of chemical products. There is no independent authority to supervise all these matters. The National Board of Revenue issued a revised policy for the operation of ICD in 2021 through a circular. However, that policy does not say anything about chemical products. Additional government security has been mentioned only in the case of keeping unique products related to high security. However, private ICDs have been asked to ensure security following the ISPS code.

It is not being monitored whether the ISPS code is being followed properly in the depots. There are also allegations that the NBR's policy is not being followed. 

There is no obligation to obtain clearance from the Department of Explosives, even if the depots handle chemicals or explosives. The Department of Explosives does not have a chance to worry about what is being handled at the depot or how.  There were also managerial errors, inefficiencies and limitations in the management of BM Depot, the concerned said. However, the depot authorities said that their depot was being operated following the NBR and ISPS code policy. They initially see this incident as sabotage. As a result, the private sector has not yet developed the capability to set up separate depots for chemicals or separate sheds outside depots.

The chemical depot has instructions to keep other products in a separate shed 60 feet away from the container, write the word combustible substance or chemical on the container, and handle it safely. That is how it is done. 

However, to ensure safety, exporters should properly tag and mark the chemical loading drums and clearly state the name of the chemical. If it is combustible and corrosive, give a symbolic sign about it. MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) of each chemical must be handed over to the depots when the transfer of chemical-filled drums to the depot. The Material Safety Data Sheet contains detailed information on each chemical. Depots that store or load containers of such hazardous, combustible, accident-prone and corrosive chemicals and other products should set up separate Hazchem zones. 

About five years ago, the International Maritime Organization recommended the formation of an authority to monitor compliance with the provisions of the Convention. That authority was not formed. After a horrific explosion at a BM container depot in Sitakunda, Chittagong, the issue came to light again. As many as 41 people, including firefighters, were killed in the blaze on Monday. More than one and a half hundred were injured.

The export of dangerous products like chemicals is increasing in the country. For example, in the first 11 months of the current financial year, only hydrogen peroxide has been exported at more than 7 crores kg.

 Eighty per cent of the country's export products are stored, loaded, and unloaded at private depots in Chittagong. After that, they were taken to the port by car from the depot and handed over to the ship.

The container is to be labelled or marked while shipping. If the marking is not given, the port will block it. Apart from international conventions, the country does not have up-to-date laws for storing and transporting dangerous goods. The Dangerous Cargo Act of 1953 does not meet current demand because new dangerous products are added to the import-export.

Preventive fire protection measures must be taken at depots and factories to prevent the ignition of dangerous chemicals. All depots require a fire protection team. 

The fire brigade must first provide a chemical safety data sheet so that firefighters can carefully extinguish the fire and use the appropriate fire extinguishing agents and chemicals.  

Sheikh Mehbuba Moitree is a student of LL.B (Honours) in Maritime Law & Policy Department of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University