On 14 December 1994, a consignment of skim milk powder arrived in Chittagong Port. For the past 24 years, it has been lying near to the New Mooring Container Terminal, and as the clock ticks, storing the consignment becomes riskier.
Long past its expiry date, the powder is on the list of Dangerous Goods. Although innocent on the surface, milk powder is highly flammable. When exposed to a certain mix of air and heat, the powder is susceptible to combustion, becoming almost as explosive as coal dust.
As per the rules, if goods are not delivered within 30 days of arrival at the port of shipment, there is a provision to auction off or destroy them.
The customs authorities, however, have failed to do either.
The skim milk container is not the only dangerous good at the port.
There are 259 TEUs of such goods, holding chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, sulphate, sulfuric acid, thinners, hexanol, nitric acid, calcium oxide, sodium sulphate, methanol, ethyl, along with fire extinguishers, according to the last update on April-May.
The storage shed is a ticking time bomb, a fuse waiting to be lit.
Muhammad Idris Ali, professor of chemistry at Haji Mohammad Mohsin College, Chattogram, told The Business Standard that if dangerous products, including chemicals, are stored for a long time, they pose a serious risk to the environment, water, air and above all, human life.
He warned that under no circumstances should such dangerous goods be stored for a long time in an important place like Chittagong Port.
The custom authorities, who are tasked with the auction or removal of consignments, blame a shortage of manpower hindering their ability to conduct their work.
The same excuse has been cited over the years.
Despite numerous letters from the Chittagong Port Authority to sell or destroy the goods, the customs has not been able to make any headway.
There are also instances when attempts to sell or destroy stored goods led to cases being filed by importers, many of which are yet to be disposed of.
Custom authorities have also cited other excuses such as a financial crisis and even lack of water.
On January 16 this year, Rear Admiral M Shahjahan, Chairman, Chittagong Port Authority, wrote to the secretary, Ministry of Shipping, to take necessary steps to remove dangerous goods and cargo containers.
It was mentioned in the letter that although the goods were handed over to the customs department for auction, they remained in the port, creating congestion and disruptions.
The letter also noted that hazardous goods and containers were hampering the normal functioning of the port as well as putting the port at risk.
Rear Admiral M Shahjahan, said, "We have written to customs many times to remove dangerous goods from the port. But there was no response. I have informed the customs commissioner about this even today. The sooner these goods can be removed from the port, the better it is for the security of the port."
In this regard, Chittagong Customs House Commissioner Mohammad Fakhrul Alam told TBS it was taking time to remove the chemical products due to lack of manpower.
He, however, said officials have begun working on the matter in the wake of the BM container depot explosion, adding that a public notice was issued on Wednesday to expedite the unloading of imported goods. If the goods are not delivered within 30 days of import, the goods will be auctioned, he said.
But the explosion at BM Depot put any excuse on the back burner.
Immediately after the explosion on Saturday, a shipment of 30 metric tonnes of hydrogen peroxide was sold at a spot auction on June 6.
The port sent a letter to the customs on June 5 to remove the goods from Chittagong port following the explosion of hydrogen peroxide. On June 6, the day after the letter was received, the customs called a spot auction and auctioned the consignment, which had been lying at the port for four years.
Since Tuesday morning, officials of Chittagong Port and the Customs Authority have also started making an inventory of the goods stored.
Ali Reza Haider, deputy commissioner of the auction branch of Chittagong Customs House, told TBS on Tuesay that they are working to expedite the auction and demolition of these products.
Chittagong port had come to the spotlight after the Beirut blast, but since then there had been no visible progress.
The blame has been squarely put on the customs for failing to remove the dangerous goods.
Spurred by Beirut port explosion, now back to square one
According to Chittagong Customs House sources, the customs authorities began removing dangerous goods after the 2020 explosion at the Beirut port in Lebanon.
Since then, about 59 tonnes of goods in the P Shed of the port have been destroyed at the factory of Lafarge Holcim Bangladesh Limited in Sunamganj.
Meanwhile, the old auction shed, spread over five acres, 15-20 year old products still lie, collecting dust.
These include 146 different types of cars, expired powdered milk, cosmetics, chemicals, cloths and blankets.
The port authority also constructed a new auction shed at a cost of Tk22 crore. Although it was inaugurated on 2 September, 2015, the customs authorities did not remove the dangerous chemicals from the old auction shed.
According to the Chittagong Port Authority, the removal of the old auction shed will create space for about 10,000 Twenty-foot equivalent units of containers.
Handling one lakh containers a year, the port will be able to earn Tk15-20 crore per year.
On 15 March 2021, Mohammad Fakhrul Alam, Chairman of Chittagong Port Authority visited the old auction shed and asked that the old auction shed be removed within two months.
A year and three months later, the old auction shed remains.
Meanwhile, on November 11 last year, a fire broke out among the dangerous goods lying in the P shed of the port.