One week after an explosion at the world’s second largest small arms propellant factory leveled a building, Belgian authorities have evacuated an area 350 meters out from the edges of an “explosion exclusion perimeter.” A French hazardous materials recovery company is now on-site and has tackled the dangerous process of attempting to recover existing propellants and begin the clean-up and evacuation of materials.
PB Clermont SA provides small arms propellant (gunpowder) to most ammunition manufacturers in Europe and many in the United States. Last Friday at about 5:00 PM local time after most workers had gone home for the day, an explosion leveled a key building used to manufacture propellant used for rifle cartridges. Two employees were injured.
The cause of the explosion is still unknown.
Clean-up efforts began yesterday, after the necessary initial investigative work had been completed and the area was saturated with water to help prevent the possibility of a follow-on explosions. The recovery of explosive materials is expected to be completed today.
Sabine Huc, the communications manager at PB Clermont, said that 20 nearby homes were evacuated for the duration of the clean-up.
Rifle propellant that had passed through the building as part of the manufacturing process will complete processing today in order to be shipped out of the area, but no new production can take place. The building that was destroyed in the blast was part of a sequential process of propellant production, and production will be halted at the plant until the destroyed area can be cleared, and the equipment inside is recovered, repaired, or replaced. It has not been stated whether production can resume with the repaired/replaced equipment in another building on the site, or if the building must be rebuilt first.
It is unknown at this time when PB Clermont might resume production.
The company will not publicly comment at this time, but at least temporary layoffs seem to be expected.
The reaction among the world’s ammunition manufacturers has largely been an ominous silence.
Bearing Arms attempted to contact the major ammunition manufacturers in the United States and Europe 48 hours ago, asking them if PB Clermont was one of their powder sources, and if they thought that the plant’s closure would affect their ability to manufacture and ship ammunition to a starved U.S. commercial ammunition market that is presently consuming 17 billion rounds of ammunition a year.
Only Tim Brandt of ATK has responded affirmatively that their lines of ammunition would be unaffected.
A Barnaul distributor (marketed as Golden Bear, Silver Bear, and Brown Bear in the United States) affirmed that two lines of rifle ammunition would be affected, but could not state definitively which lines, and noted that the Russian company sourced most of their propellants from within their own country.
A U.S. manufacturer which Bearing Arms has chosen to keep anonymous provided an interesting mixed response. When Bearing Arms contacted the company Wednesday afternoon and spoke with a member of the administrative staff in order to explain the nature of our inquiry, the individual knew about the situation and remarked that explosion at PB Clermont had been a topic of conversation that day among company staff. When we were put through to the company’s official public relations contact, that individual asserted that my inquiry was “the first they’d heard of it.”
It seems that this company is like most in the industry that buy propellant instead of manufacturing it. Until PB Clermont can clear their site and determine if and when they will be able to resume production, they don’t know how bad the ripple effect will impact the entire industry.
A fourth industry source, insisting on anonymity, suggested that the explosion could seriously affect rifle ammunition production through 2016.
Until PB Clermont can clear the site, recover essential equipment, and provide estimates on when they might be back online, the length and depth of the impact on the market is still largely an unknown, but is one severe enough that major manufacturers on two continents refuse to discuss it.