Hazardous goods: Fire scare grips Ctg port
Panic spread among officials at the Chattogram Port when smoke began billowing from an acid-loaded container on Tuesday, around three days after the BM container depot fire and explosion.
The container had been lying on the port's yard-7 for around 12 years.
After a two-hour effort, the port's firefighters were able to bring the situation under control.
At least 257 such containers of hazardous chemicals and other inflammable materials have been lying idle in yard for years, leaving the country's premier seaport at the risk of deadly explosions.
On Saturday, at least 45 people were killed in a devastating fire and explosion at the BM shipping container depot in Chattogram's Sitakunda.
After the BM depot explosion, the port authority wrote to Chattogram Customs on Sunday saying the same incident may occur at the port unless hazardous materials are immediately removed.
The 257 imported containers contain hazardous cargo, including hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid, sulfate, thinner, sodium sulfate, methanol, ethyl hexanol, potassium chloride, calcium carbide, nitric acid, calcium oxide and other flammable goods, the letter read.
Port officials said those containers have been lying at designated sheds and yards for five to 15 years.
Customs officials and importers cited a number of reasons for the delay in moving those containers.
The reasons include a fall in prices of the goods in the local market, failure to submit original documents in support of the shipment, failure to get clearance permit reports, and importers' refusal to pay fines for anomalies.
However, following the letter, Customs authorities on Monday auctioned off 30.5 tonnes of hydrogen peroxide imported four years ago.
The customs sold it at only Tk 5.20 lakh, far below the reserved price (a minimum price a seller would accept from a buyer) of around Tk 25 lakh, for its quick removal from the port area.
Ali Reza Haider, deputy commissioner of Chattogram Customs House, told The Daily Star that they have taken the issue very seriously.
"Checking and sorting through the list [of hazardous materials] by the port has allowed us to the know the present condition of the goods. Inventory of most of the containers has already been done, following which the goods will either be auctioned off or destroyed as soon as possible according to the relevant law."
He, however, said they were not able to sell some goods despite putting them up for auction several times due to low price offers.
After visiting the ill-fated BM depot on Monday, Shipping Minister Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury told top customs officials to auction off or destroy all kinds of dangerous goods inside the port to prevent another such tragic incident.
After the Beirut port explosion in Lebanon in 2020, the Chattogram port and customs authorities have actively begun looking into the handling of such cargoes.
They have formed a six-member committee to list the hazardous products.
The committee found various types of chemicals and hazardous materials, which were imported between 1992 and 2019, and are currently kept in around 55 pallets, 13 drums, and around 900 packages.
In the last two years, customs officials said they have auctioned at least 24 containers containing various chemical products and at least 4,876 kgs of chemicals were destroyed in Lafarge Holcim Cement Factory in Sunamganj in December 2020.
The drive, however, lost momentum last December.
The Chattogram Port has been storing all chemical and inflammable cargoes in the P-shed as per the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code and The Dangerous Cargo Act-1953.
According to the customs law, the importers have to take delivery of goods within 30 days of those reaching the port, in default of which the authorities will auction off the goods.
However, most importers do not comply. At times, importers block the auction attempt by filing writ petition in the court and at least 10 auctions could not be completed due to this, according to auction documents.
Last Tuesday, the customs again issued a public notice requesting the importers to clear the goods within 30 days. They also said the goods, otherwise, would be auctioned off.
Customs Commissioner Fakhrul Alam said, "The auction process did not accelerate due to shortage of manpower and equipment, but in the last few months we took several initiatives such as monthly auctions. We also have dedicated customs officials for the inventory of goods that can be auctioned off."
The P-shed has lacked modern management for the storing of hazardous goods for a long time, said Khairul Alam Sujan, director of Bangladesh Shipping Agents' Association, adding that the port should not be treated as a warehouse of unclaimed or abandoned goods.