But residents complained that inconsistent standards have meant one ammonium nitrate facility was moved away from homes in South Australia over safety concerns, while another remains within 500 metres of a nursing home in NSW.
There are also serious questions over the practices of some companies involved in its transportation, including a Queensland company facing a lawsuit over an ammonium nitrate “fireball” that injured eight people.
Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut flipped cars, blew out windows and injured at least 4000 people.
A fire at a port that spread to a warehouse containing 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was believed to have been the cause, according to Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
It follows several high-profile ammonium nitrate explosions at fertiliser factories overseas. An estimated 150 buildings were destroyed in a Texas blast in 2013, while 29 people were killed in an explosion in France in 2001.
Ammonium nitrate is used as an explosive by the mining industry, meaning there is keen demand for it in the Hunter Valley.
In 2014, Incitec Pivot won approval for a storage facility on Kooragang Island, three kilometres from the centre of Newcastle.
It has not yet built the facility, which would have the capacity for 30,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
An Incitec Pivot spokeswoman said it had a number of other sites in Australia where ammonium nitrate was stored, and separation distances from residential areas were developed based on detailed risk management and calculations, in line with government regulations.
She said the company operated in a strictly regulated environment which included regular audits. The company also had “robust” plans to manage emergencies, such as explosions.
“The paramount principle in everything we do is zero harm,” she said.
Kooragang Island is already home to a smaller storage facility operated by chemical giant Orica, where up to 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate are stored and around 430,000 tonnes produced each year.
Explosion concerns about 160 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were enough to see Incitec Pivot relocate an ammonium nitrate plant away from a planned residential development in Port Adelaide.
The decision was made after Safework South Australia and the EPA warned in 2010 the development should not go ahead near the plant because of the explosion risk.
Keith Craig, from the Stockton Community Action Group, said the people in Newcastle were angry at the double standard.
“It’s really brought it home again, this is really the wrong place for this type of operation,” he said.
“While the likelihood of it happening is low, the risk is catastrophic.”
Orica’s operation on Kooragang Island was responsible for a leak of carcinogenic hexavalent chromium over surrounding suburbs in 2011.
But an Orica spokesman said it had since spent more than $250 million on improvements to its plant and there had not been a single incident involving ammonium nitrate in its 51-year history.
“The explosion in Beirut appears to be the result of ammonium nitrate being abandoned in a warehouse for six years,” he said.
“Orica’s operations at Kooragang Island are highly regulated by authorities and Orica’s own rigorous approach to safety and risk management.”
The spokesman said ammonium nitrate was extremely safe when manufactured, stored and transported correctly.
“Ammonium nitrate storage areas are fire resistant and built exclusively from non-flammable materials,” he said.
Mr Richards, who once worked for Orica and BHP, argued the stockpiles should be relocated away from population centres.
While he was confident the safety practices of the companies were stringent, he insisted there was always a very small possibility something could go wrong, as occurred in France.
“If you went to the company a couple of days beforehand and said what’s the chance of the plant blowing up and killing lots of people and causing billions of dollars of damage, they would say no chance,” he said.
The Queensland government is suing an ammonium nitrate trucking company over an explosion near Charleville in 2014. The fireball is alleged to have caused nearly $8 million in damage and injured eight people.
Newcastle trucking company Crawford Freightlines was found in 2012 to be stockpiling more than 10,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate without proper approvals within a few hundred metres of a nursing home.
The company has since been fined by the EPA for poor storage of dangerous goods and using tankers that were not of an appropriate standard.
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Carrie Fellner is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.