BM Container Depot owners flouted rules

Charred containers after BM Container explosion
Prothom Alo

Chattogram’s explosion-ravaged BM Container Depot would flout the local and international guidelines to be followed in the maintenance of hazardous substances. Containers carrying chemical substances would be stored beside other containers of garments and other products. The depot authorities failed to comply with the safety measures given by the fire service. The government authorities, too, failed to monitor all these discrepancies.

A licence of a container depot is provided after compliance with various conditions set in National Board of Revenue and Shipping ministry directives. The two policies make it mandatory to implement International Maritime Organisation’s ‘The International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code’.

The IMDG Code is an international code for the maritime transport of dangerous goods in the packaged form, developed to enhance and harmonise the safe carriage of dangerous goods and to prevent pollution to the environment.

It is also mandatory to follow International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS). ISPS is an essential maritime regulation for the safety and security of ships, ports, cargo and crew. Apart from these two codes, clearance from the environment department and fire service and civil defence, fire and disaster insurance and other insurance are mandatory for dealing with hazardous goods. Complying with labour law is also mandatory. The BM Container depot got all these licenses.

Although the depot authorities should have followed the guidelines during availing the clearances, they flouted the directives in practice. Primary investigations of three probe bodies formed by the government, the inspection report of the organisation which provided license before the accident and Prothom Alo’s investigation found at least 10 types of an anomalies in the operation of the depot.

Environment department’s Chattogram district deputy director Ferdous Anwar told Prothom Alo that the application the depot authorities submitted for clearance did not mention dealing with chemical products. Had they mentioned it, there would have been conditions to take safety measures accordingly. Also, containers of garments products and chemicals were kept nearby although these should have been kept separately.

It was mandatory to have a water reservoir inside the depot but there was not any. The fire extinguishers should have been installed in every 500 square feet area but the number was not adequate. There was no fire hydrant either and no trained employees to douse the fire.

Charred containers after BM Container explosion
Prothom Alo

A total of 48 people have so far been killed after the depot caught fire and exploded on 4 June night. Over 200 people including fire service officials and policemen were injured. At least 100 containers loaded with various goods were incinerated.

Probe bodies of fire service or other authorities are yet to confirm the source of the fire. Probe body sources said a total of 37 containers had hydrogen peroxide during the fire. 25 of these containers caught fire. The BM Container Depot began operations in 2011 after a Bangladeshi and a Dutch corporation invested a total of Tk 1.5 billion in the project.

According to the company’s website, the chairman and managing director (MD) of BM container depot are Mr Bert Pronk and Mostafizur Rahman respectively while Mujibur Rahman, brother of Mostafizur, also the MD of Smart Jeans, is the director of the depot. Mujibur Rahman is the treasurer of Chattogram South unit Awami League (AL).

Mujibur maintained that they complied with all the safety regulations without elaborating.

Lack of proper management of dangerous goods

Hydrogen peroxide is class 5.1 dangerous goods according to IMDG Code. The IMDG Code divides dangerous goods into 9 classes, with explosives on the number one of the list. The shipping ministry and NBR also stipulate complying with these policies while operating the depot.

IMO in 2017 informed the shipping ministry of the lack of proper compliance with the code in Bangladesh. The IMO suggested the shipping authorities form a committee to oversee the implementation of the codes. But this proposal saw no headway in five years.

An expert in the maritime sector told Prothom Alo that the extent of damage would have been less severe if the depot authorities properly implemented the policies of the IMDG code. The Department of Shipping should take strict measures to ensure the implementation of the code.

The IMDG code directs the immediate removal of dangerous substances after an accident. This code elaborates on how to transport and store dangerous goods and on providing training for implementation.

An expert in the maritime sector told Prothom Alo that the extent of damage would have been less severe if the depot authorities properly implemented the policies of the IMDG code. The Department of shipping should take strict measures to ensure the implementation of the code.

Lack of proper fire-fighting instrument

Fire service officials have found a lack of proper safety measures after the depot caught fire.

Several top officials of the fire service told Prothom Alo that the license stipulated fire hydrants should be installed in an open place but there was none in the depot.

An automated pump and water reservoir were also not in place. There were no measures of keeping chemical substances separately. Over two thousand fire extinguishers should have been installed in the 97,159 square meter depot area, but the number of extinguishers was insufficient. Also, there was no fire control room.

Fire service and civil defence’s deputy assistant director Purnachandra Mutsuddi took part in extinguishing the fire. He told Prothom Alo that the depot had a lack of proper safety measures against fire. The firefighters also suffered from a lack of water.

Lack of manpower

Chattogram Port Authorities oversee the management of depots. The port authorities in its last inspection report highlighted the lack of proper management in the BM depot. The report underlined deficiencies in scanners and pieces of machinery. The port authorities are now running a probe after the accident.

A member of the probe body told Prothom Alo on Sunday that the depot authorities did not have any trained manpower on how to extinguish the fire immediately after it broke out. Higher officials of the depot rushed to the spot from their houses and tried to tame the blaze. By then, the chemical containers caught fire.

The probe body said the chemical containers were placed near other containers though these should have been kept separately.

Chattogram port’s chairman Rear Admiral M Shahjahan visited the depot a day after the accident.

He told Prothom Alo that day the containers that caught fire should have been separated from other containers at the beginning but this was not followed in the BM Container depot.

Application for renewal upon expiry of the license

NBR gives the main licence for operating a depot. The licence of BM Depot was renewed on two instances since 2016. On both occasions, the depot authorities applied for licence renewal after it expired.

The depot authorities in 2020 applied for renewal after 3 months and 16 days of expiry. The customs authorities served a show-cause notice for the delay and the depot authorities got their licensc renewed upon a commitment that they would not make the same mistake again.

Diesel pump raises questions

The probe committee members found a consumer (diesel) pump in the compartment of the depot. Fire service officials said the gravity of explosion could have been much more severe had the diesel pump caught fire. The depot authorities did not take the approval for such a pump from the fire service.

It was learnt that no such application was made to Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation.

The explosive department’s inspector in Chattogram Tofazzal Hossain, however, told Prothom Alo that the depot had the approval of a diesel pump for their own use. The pump was unscathed in the explosion.

But the BPC’s chairman ABM Azad said a process is on to bring the pumps the industries use for their internal use under a uniform policy.

We should have our own policy as to how international codes on dangerous goods would be implemented here, but there is none
Yasir Arafat, BUET teacher of Chemical Engineering department

Chattogram port, Chattogram customs, environment department, fire service and shipping department look after the operation of the container depot. Clearances from the Board of Investment and Chattogram Development Authority are also required.

The shipping department oversees the management of dangerous goods. Fire service and environment department are supposed to oversee fire safety and environmental management.

Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology’s chemical engineering department teacher Yasir Arafat told Prothom Alo, “There is no coordination among the organisations entrusted to oversee the matter. We should have our own policy as to how international codes on dangerous goods would be implemented here, but there is none.”

He added that the related laws should have been updated .

“To avert recurrence of such incidents, there should be strong monitoring from the government to ensure coordination and compliance of related international policies,” he added.