Precautions at Port Newark In Aftermath of China Explosion

By Brenda Flanagan

Multiple explosions that rocked Tianjin packed the same punch as 21 tons of TNT.

The aftermath shows jumbled cargo containers, rows of torched cars, an obliterated warehouse in a port facility that previously looked much like Port Newark — which also handles explosive cargo, designated by the Coast Guard as Class One.

“Anything from fireworks up to your actual big explosives, like dynamite,” said Lt. Theresa Bigay.

Bigay says, the U.S. Coast Guard’s among several agencies that inspect shipping cargo classified “hazmat.” The most dangerous gets examined before it even leaves a foreign port — requires special permits — and moves under tight restrictions.

“So before that transfer starts, people conduct an inspection making sure that everything is per the permit that they provided to us, to ensure safety from the vessel to the terminal. If that’s the transfer, if it’s vessel-to-vessel, however it was submitted,” said Bigay. “You’re not going to be able to open every single container. It’s impossible.”

Out of the millions of containers that flow into Ports Newark and New York, the Coast Guard randomly opens 2,400 a year. Some get x-rayed, others pass through radiation detectors — in security protocols heightened since 9/11. Inbound ships call in.

“Hey, we’re coming into the port. We’re already on it. We’re already overseeing it and again layered approach. Customs and Border Patrol is already seeing it, as well,” said Bigay.

Chinese officials won’t offer details, but the destroyed warehouse could have stored calcium carbide — a volatile chemical which would’ve yielded explosive acetylene gas when firefighters sprayed it with water. Here, chemical cargo gets clearly labelled, carefully segregated.

“For example, some are classified dangerous when wet or obviously you don’t want to place flammables where a cargo can spontaneously combust,” Bigay said.

The odds of this happening here?

“The hope is that it’s as unlikely as we can make it,” said Bigay.

Nothing’s foolproof, but container storage at ports here is highly regulated, cataloged and patrolled with a paper trail to follow if something goes wrong.