BEIRUT – It’s hard to drive through many parts of Lebanon’s capital these days without a growing sense of dystopia. Over the weekend, the national power grid – which for months has been providing only two or three hours of power per day in any case – went completely dark. Workers at public institutions are on strike indefinitely or intermittently as hyperinflation – now considered the worst in the world – has reduced what was formerly an entire month’s wage to barely enough money to fill a small car with fuel.
But while there are many candidates for the most potent symbol of Lebanon’s collapse, the partially destroyed remains of the grain silos at Beirut’s port are a front runner. Dominating Beirut’s seaside vista when entering the city from the north, they have become a kind of unintentional 150-foot-tall monument to a tradition of governmental malpractice on a murderous scale.
The silos were badly damaged in August 2020’s massive blast of improperly stored explosives – including thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate – that killed more than 200 people, damaged or destroyed thousands of buildings, and collectively traumatised perhaps millions of people. Fourteen months on, the ruined silos still stand, with thousands of tonnes of spilled grain at their base. Had they not absorbed a significant portion of the explosion, damage across the city would have been much more severe.
As Lebanon, which rarely experiences precipitation from May and September, prepares for winter rains, it’s possible at least part of the structure will collapse before anything is done about it. But despite previous warnings the silos could collapse at any time, no one really seems to know what will happen, or have much of a plan.
“It is not possible to predict if they will fall – but they are no longer a structure with integrity,” Emmanuel Durand, a Swiss engineer who placed laser monitoring devices on the towers earlier this year, told VICE World News. “I don’t make predictions. It’s like when you monitor a volcano. You can’t predict when it will erupt, if ever.”
Durand is part of a Lebanese government-appointed committee making recommendations for how to deal with the ongoing cleanup, which is hampered by the fact Lebanon is completely broke. Other toxic chemicals at the port that miraculously did not ignite in the explosion sat for months, posing a further danger, before the government finally paid to have them shipped to Germany for disposal earlier this year.
While Durand declined to predict when the structures might collapse, he did say that the northern part of the structure was experiencing enough movement that he recommended it be taken down as soon as possible.
“My recommendation is still to deconstruct the north block because it’s moving very fast, and for the south block, keep monitoring and if it continues to be unstable, they can remove it,” Durand said. “By deconstruction – we mean the careful removal, kind of piece by piece. This is something that is costly – Lebanon probably doesn’t have that money at the moment and has so many more problems.”
The sensors are “like an alert system,” he said. Durand compared the silos to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which prior to reconstruction work carried out in the 20th century was moving as much as 1.22mm a year. “The movement is much faster than the Pisa tower, and the structure is heavily damaged. The soil and the foundation situation is greatly unknown. What we are sure of is that the foundations are damaged and that’s why the silos are tilting.”
In the absence of deconstruction, Durand said he hoped that the sensors would give enough warning that the area could be evacuated, preventing further casualties.
“We need to make sure the silo cannot harm more lives – if they collapse, there is nothing we can do,” Durand said. “I would say I don’t really mind as long as they don’t kill anybody.”
At the bottom of the silos, around 12,000 tonnes of spilled grain are still waiting to be cleaned up and disposed of. Options include incineration in Lebanon or in another country, and it is believed that some of the grain can be turned into fertiliser. However, as the grain sits and rots, it presents potential health hazards of its own.
Andre El Khoury, a professor of microtoxicology at Lebanon’s St Joseph University who is also a member of the committee making recommendations for cleaning up the debris, said that fungi that could pose respiratory problems for people nearby, including aspergillus fumigatus, were present on the grain.
El Khoury said that no one was even monitoring the problem closely because of the government’s current limitations.
“We don’t have the capacity to do testing – even if no one has been harmed, there is a great risk,” El Khoury said. “We know already that these fungi are present — so what to do? We asked for a company to use a fungicide targeting these species of aspergillus before treating the grain.”
El Khoury pointed out there were a number of hospitals close to the port as well whose patients could be affected should the fungus become airborne – a likelihood already given the grain sits along the seaside, or should the collapsing silos disburse further debris.
A worker at the silos said that his crew had been issued safety equipment, including masks and protective clothing, but that the machines that had been brought in to vacuum up the spilled grain were still not fully functional.
The worker, who also worked at the silos before the explosion and requested anonymity, said that he wasn’t thinking much about the collapse of the silos. On the day of the explosion, he had been lucky enough to be off-shift. The remains of some of his friends and colleagues, who were unloading a shipment of grain at the silos when the blast occurred, were found weeks later. Some people’s bodies were never found.
“The worst has already happened,” he said.