Lawsuit Filed Against Seismic Firm in Connection With Beirut Blast

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Aftermath of the Beirut explosion, 2020 (Mehr News / CC BY 3.0)

Published Jul 14, 2022 11:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

A lawsuit filed in a U.S. court targets a charterer of the freighter Rhosus, the ship that arrived at the port of Beirut with a cargo of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in 2013. The aging vessel was detained and eventually sank, but the cargo was seized and stored by port officials - until August 4, 2020, when a portion of it detonated and leveled a broad swath of Beirut's waterfront. 200 people were killed in the blast. 

The Swiss-based foundation Accountability Now has worked with nine plaintiffs - all Americans or relatives of Americans - to sue the Oslo-listed geophysical services group TGS, the successor company to British seismic company Spectrum Geo. Accountability Now alleges that Spectrum Geo had arranged "highly profitable but suspicious contracts" with the Lebanese Ministry of Energy to transport seismic equipment by ship, and had chartered the Rhosus for this purpose. 

"It is in the performance of its 2012 contract [with the ministry] that Spectrum chartered the derelict Moldavian flagged vessel Rhosus to come to Beirut while carrying 2750 tons of military grade ammonium nitrate aboard," asserted Accountability Now in a statement

However, the ship never departed Beirut again, and it eventually sank at its berth. 

TGS, which bought and absorbed Spectrum Geo in 2019, denies that Spectrum Geo had any connection to the Beirut explosion.

"We deny each and every allegation raised in the lawsuit, and intend to vigorously defend this matter in court," TGS said in a statement Wednesday. "We are confident that we will prevail in this matter."

Broader goals

The suit seeks $250 million, but one of its main objectives is to obtain evidence which could be used to kick-start progress in other litigation related to the Beirut blast, counsel Zena Wakim told the AP. 

In Lebanon, judicial investigators in the criminal inquiry into the blast have made little headway because of political interference. The first investigator, Judge Fadi Sawan, was replaced in 2021 after he tried to charge several former ministers; two of them complained that he was biased and had him removed. His dismissal was widely perceived as a sign of the power of Lebanon's political class and its sway over the nation's legal system.

Sawan's replacement, Judge Tarek Bitar, attempted to charge four officials in connection with the blast; two of them have counter-sued, forcing Bitar to suspend his work for more than half a year. Many observers see limited chance for further progress. 

Accountability Now and the plaintiffs hope that their cause may gain more traction using the U.S. legal system, even if it is distant from the center of the disaster. 

"They [the plaintiffs] have no recourses left in Lebanon. The judiciary is totally muzzled up," said Wakim.