The BM Container Depot at Sitakunda, Chattogram, which saw a deadly fire and subsequent explosion causing 41 deaths and over 200 injuries on Saturday night, has been operating, flouting local and international guidelines.
Supervisory agencies are now pointing fingers to one another for its non-compliance.
Although flouting rules can lead to the cancellation of ICD licences on papers, no ICD licence has ever been cancelled.
ICDs are supposed to fulfil the custom bonded area regulation and secure a licence from the National Board of Revenue (NBR) before they are cleared to operate. A deputy or assistant commissioner and other customs officials are also responsible for overseeing operations at the ICDs.
Sources say the container depots are storing hazardous products including chemicals without following proper safety measures. ICD owners do not even train their employees in safety protocols.
Besides, setting up an ICD requires adhering to the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code, and regulations from the fire service, but none is followed at the ICDs.
According to the rules, dangerous products should be kept in separate containers with product details written on the containers. These containers also should be labelled as dangerous products. In addition, these products have to be stored at a certain distance.
The authorities of BM Container Depot at Sitakunda violated the principles of the IMDG Code for storing hydrogen peroxide.
Al-Amin, deputy commissioner of Chattogram Customs House, told The Business Standard that the port authorities inform us through a letter about the quantity of chemical products in the port. However, the customs authorities have no information on what kind of dangerous products are in the ICDs. This information is available at the depots.
The Department of Explosives was also unaware of the information. According to the agency, the BM Container Depot authorities did not have the necessary infrastructure to store the chemicals.
Tofazzal Hossain, an inspector at the Department of Explosives in Chattogram, told The Business Standard, "Special kind of infrastructure is required to store such products. But the depot did not have that arrangement."
Mohammad Monir Hossain, director (training) of the Fire Service and Civil Defence, echoed the inspector's comment and said, "The BM Container Depot was not equipped at all to store chemicals. Usually, there should be a list of what is kept in a container. The chemicals are supposed to be kept isolated. But none of these were maintained."
The BM container depot did not even have any fire extinguisher, said Faruk Hossain Sikder, assistant director at Chattogram Fire Service and Civil Defence
"Besides, the depot also has a fuel station inside. It is very risky," he added.
The ICD licensing policy requires the installation of a fire extinguishing system facility as directed by the Fire Service and Civil Defence.
Faruk Hossain claimed that the fire service authority regularly visits depots and asks the facilities to set up proper safety measures.
"BM Container Depot was also told [to set up safety measures] but they did not listen," he said.
"We will inspect all 19 depots in Chattogram," Faruk said, adding that the director general of Fire Service and Civil Defence has directed to take strict measures for the implementation of necessary safety measures.
Ruhul Amin Sikder, secretary general of Bangladesh Inland Container Depots Association (BICDA), the owners association of container depots, said, "The ICDs are governed by domestic and international policies and any compliance errors are rectified as directed by the inspection team."
According to IMDG Code, for storing and transporting hazardous goods, the containers need to use hazard warning labels and other identifying marks to identify dangerous goods; requires standard documentation when dangerous goods are transported, and ensuring that incompatible dangerous goods are kept apart.
The NBR issues the ICD licence to a private company after an eight-step process that includes inspection in several stages as well as permissions from the port authority and the shipping ministry.
Despite violations of ICD licensing policy, customs and port authorities have not yet taken action against a single company. As a result, the owners are managing the ICDs at will without heeding the rules and regulations causing accidents.
In 2020, four workers were killed in an explosion at Incontrade depot in Chattogram's Patenga area.
Last Saturday, a fire broke out at the large ICD BM container depot in Chattogram claiming at least 41 people, including firefighters. More than two hundred people were injured.
Only after the deadly fire incident, various mismanagement and non-compliance of ICDs are surfacing. At the same time, there is evidence of lack of coordination in monitoring the activities of ICDs. The ICD licensing authorities and the customs have no idea how many chemical products are stored in the ICDs.
Abdullah Al Shakib Mubarat, Chittagong Deputy Inspector General of Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, told The Business Standard, "We give approval after applicants show necessary papers and licences from the fire service. Then our inspector visits the site and instructs them to take necessary action."
He also said that a total of 19 depots in Chattogram have taken licences from them and they have already written to all the depots asking them to send a list of containers and items being stored.
"Bida has formed a committee and we will visit all the depots," he said.
Former director general of the fire service Brigadier General (retd) Ali Ahmed Khan told The Business Standard, "The containers should not have been kept in the open space and at a high temperature. While sorting the containers, the depot authorities should have addressed this."
According to Chattogram Custom House sources, 33 containers contained 850 tonnes of hydrogen peroxide at the BM container depot in Sitakunda where the fire broke out. These containers are kept in the depot yard.
According to the ICD's governing policy, a seven-member committee will evaluate the ICD activities. The Additional Commissioner of the concerned Custom House will act as the convener of the committee, the assistant of the Custom House or the Deputy Commissioner as the Member Secretary. Other members of the committee include the Joint Commissioner of Customs Bond Commissionerate, Deputy or Assistant Director of Customs Intelligence and Investigation, members of the port authority and BICDA, the private depot owners' association.
But, so far no activities of the evaluation committee have been reported since the incident.
Kazi Mustafizur Rahman, commissioner of customs bond commissionerate, Dkaha, told The Business Standard that depot licence is issued by the customs authority. But the depot authority is responsible for overseeing it.
"If it was in the port, then the responsibility would be with the port authority," he added.
In Bangladesh, there are 19 Inland Container Depots (ICD) also known as off-docks which handle almost 95% of export goods for shipments and 38 types of import goods – including food items like rice, wheat, and mustard seed, chickpeas, pulse, scraps. The ICDs work to help ease congestion at Chattogram port and facilitate the quick clearance of FCL (Full Container Load) cargo by allowing unloading or delivery from outside the port area.