Beirut’s smoldering port silo at risk of collapsing as grain ignites

BEIRUT: A huge silo containing thousands of tonnes of grain in the port of Beirut is at risk of collapse due to a fire that has been smoldering for weeks amid Lebanon’s summer heat.

Flames and thick black smoke could be seen rising from the silo after the blaze broke out on Friday.

The fire prompted a warning from Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to “workers and members of the civil defense and firefighters not to approach the scene for their safety and to avoid putting their lives in danger”.

Recent high temperatures are thought to have caused wheat to ferment in the silo – one of two massive structures that withstood the deadly explosion at the port of Beirut two years ago – igniting thousands of tonnes of grain .

Reports from the Ministries of Interior, Economy, Public Works and Environment warned that “parts of the left side of the silo could be at risk of collapsing”.

The threat to the silo is of growing concern to port workers and facility management.

Smoke and flames at the site also bring back painful memories of the deadly explosion that rocked the port on August 4, 2020.

Acting Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi has asked firefighters and civil defense to immediately start “cooling down” the wheat silos.

As the Lebanese watch helplessly as the last wheat stored in the silo burns, the country’s mills and bakeries are grappling with a severe shortage of subsidized flour used to make Lebanese pita bread.

Acting Economy Minister Amin Salam said 50,000 tonnes of wheat will arrive in Lebanon in the next 10 days, ensuring a six-week supply.

Seven out of 11 mills closed because they ran out of subsidized wheat, according to a bakers’ union.

The presence of more than 500,000 tourists in Lebanon is adding pressure on the supply of bread, he added.

Meanwhile, the silo fire has reignited simmering tensions between the families of the victims of the port explosion and government agencies.

Last April, government agencies recommended demolition of the silos due to the risks the structures pose to the surrounding area.

However, families and activists reject the demolition, saying it will destroy “one of the main monuments of the biggest explosion that Lebanon has witnessed”, according to the Order of Engineers.

The silos “witness a crime that affected everyone,” he said.

The Order of Engineers called for work to “consolidate the silos affected”.

Experts say the fire will eventually die out, but have warned against using water to fight the fire, saying it could speed up the fermentation process.

Political, security, judicial and military officials continue to accuse each other of the port explosion.

Judicial investigations into the crime were suspended last November, due to political interference and legal action against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation.

The defendants, including former MPs and ministers, are asking that Bitar be removed from the case.

In a press briefing given to the Security Council on Thursday, the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Joanna Wronecka, underlined “the lack of progress in the judicial measures linked to the affair of the explosion of the port of Beirut, which further saddens the families of the dead and injured. ”

Wronecka demanded that “the obstacles that impede the course of justice be removed and that a thorough and transparent investigation into the matter be carried out”.

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