Tianjin blasts shine unwelcome light on China's chemicals industry


chinadialogue, Tianjin, China

A deadly blast at the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin looks certain to rekindle scrutiny of how the production and storage of hazardous chemicals are regulated amid growing consciousness of environmental issues among the Chinese public. 

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A huge fireball engulfed a large area of Tianjin's port, while two large blasts ripped through buildings over a wide radius in China's fourth-biggest city (Image by weibo)

At least two huge explosions at a chemicals storage warehouse in Tianjin’s sprawling port district killed at least 50 people, around a quarter of them firefighters, according to recent media reports. Hundreds of people are said to be seriously injured.
Buildings and infrastructure were damaged over a wide radius, and it is not yet clear yet what kind of threat toxic materials have posed to human health amid reports that chemical warfare storage units are the scene of the disaster.
Chinese media speculated that the materials that might have sparked secondary explosions include sodium cyanide, which is highly toxic; calcium carbide, which burns the skin; toluene diisocyanate, which harms the respiratory tract; and butanone, which can sting the eyes and nose if inhaled in large doses.
The exact cause of the disaster isn’t yet known, and is the latest of a string of explosions and serious environmental incidents on China’s heavily-industrialised east coast over the last decade. The scale of the incident is likely to stoke concerns that local officials are allowing too many dangerous facilities to operate without proper checks.
In common with many fast-growing cities in China, residential buildings and schools weren’t far from the port area, and many apartment blocks had windows and doors blown in by the blast.
Eyewitnesses described the fireball from the explosion reached a height of 20 stories, incinerating hundreds of cars and other goods stored at the port, parts of which resemble a war zone according to video footage from the scene.  
The China Youth Daily quoted an anonymous expert who said that the first explosion may have been caused by concentrated alcohol products, but added that it is harder to identify what materials may have caused the secondary blasts.
Tianjin’s city government said any pollutants released by the explosion are likely to have been blown out to sea by prevailing winds, while 12 emergency air quality measuring stations placed around the site showed that levels of pollutants weren’t any higher than normal.
Despite reports that residents in Beijing, around 130 kilometres from Tianjin, have been told to stay indoors, official measurements of air quality in the capital did not register any effects from the explosion.
But some observers, such as Cheng Qian, an anti-pollution campaigner with Greenpeace, said air quality measurements do not include compounds that include cyanide.
The warehouse at the centre of the explosion is owned by Ruihai International Logistics, a private company that was founded in 2011 and trades in hazardous chemicals, handling one million tonnes of goods a year.
It also stores liquefied natural gas, flammable liquids, and toxic and corrosive products.
Voice of China reporter met a lucky Ruihui employee at the scene who had gone out to buy food for six colleagues right before the blast. He told the journalist that he had not received any training in handling hazardous materials.
A report on Chinese online news site Quartz said a government inspection in 2013 reported that five of the more than 4,300 containers on site were improperly encased (link in Chinese). A company official has been detained by the police, the People’s Daily reported.
Tianjin is northern China’s largest port, and the chemical sector is an integral part of the city’s economy.
Chemicals hub
In 2012, media reports indicated that the Bohai Sea was being ‘encircled’ by the rapid growth of the chemical industry in Tianjin and neighbouring cities, while in China questions are being asked about the level of disclosure in environmental impact assessments required by companies to store hazardous chemicals.
An environmental impact assessment for Ruihai, produced in 2013 by the Tianjin Academy of Environmental Protection Sciences, shows that the majority of products to be stored in the company’s warehouse were dangerous or flammable.
These products presented environmental risks during transportation or storage, the assessment added, but it concluded that the risk of an accident was within acceptable limits.
As part of that report, 130 questionnaires issued in the surrounding area and 100% of respondents said the site was suitable, around 52% were supportive of the proposed project's measures for environmental protection, while the remainder expressed no opinion. However, it is unclear who these respondents were.
Buffer zones
Since Wednesday's explosion many local residents have told media that they never saw any questionnaires. In many cases around China, the public has strongly objected to chemical plants near their homes.
One source who has played a leading role in Tianjin zoning decisions told the National Business Daily that the growth in the chemical industry hadn’t originally been part of the plan for the Tianjin development zone – and that production plants are packed too closely together.
A professor from Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology said that China’s rules on buffer zones between stores of hazardous materials and residential buildings need to be made “much clearer”.