What will it take to end China’s terrible record of chemical accidents?
That’s what many were asking in the wake of a powerful explosion in Jiangsu’s Yancheng city last week which killed 78 and injured another 550.
Even the government seems to be scratching its head.
After 173 people were killed in a blast in Tianjin in August 2015 Beijing adopted an iron-fisted approach to punishment. Up to 25 officials, including then mayor of Tianjin, Huang Xingguo, and 24 company executives were prosecuted for their role in that 2015 blast. The State Council also tightened safety regulations and created a new Ministry of Emergency Management in May last year to supervise the storage of hazardous chemicals.
Yet “chemical accidents” continue to occur almost daily, with 620 incidents killing 728 people in the last three years, according to official figures.
“This happened after local governments failed to learn their lessons from previous cases and were not serious in improving safety,” said Huang Ming, deputy head of the Ministry of Emergency Management, after inspecting the blast site in Yancheng this week.
Fingers were pointed at Tianjiayi Chemical, whose buildings exploded last week. Chinese media said the company’s safety record was notorious. It was found to have buried over 100 tonnes of chemical waste in an illegal landfill in 2016 and in January last year the plant had to shut down due to numerous safety violations, including the poor ventilation of its factory and “chemical leaks”.
Other chemical firms in the Chenjiagang Industrial Park were known to have problems too – in 2010 there was a stampede because workers thought a tank was about to explode.
When the Tianjiayi plant exploded last Thursday there was no warning. The blast was so powerful it registered 2.2 on the Richter scale and left a massive crater – just as the explosion in Tianjin did.
The fire that ensued wiped out most of the buildings within the park and it took over 900 firefighters to put it out. The initial blast also shattered the windows in nearby homes and schools, leading to many people being wounded by flying glass.
As in Tianjin, the Chenjiagang Industrial Park bordered residential communities and 10 schools were affected by the blast.
The park was created in 2002 by the local government to help alleviate poverty in the area. The plan involved displacing people and creating an attractive environment for chemical companies.
Early on officials freely admitted they were willing to compromise on regulation in order to attract investment.
“Faced with the choice between economic development and the environment, people will choose the former,” China News Weekly quoted one official as saying in 2006.
Today the park accounts for about one-sixth of the local government’s tax revenue. As several papers including the Legal Daily pointed out, this seems to have created a situation where even regular visits from top-level local bureaucrats did nothing to improve safety. “There have been repeat rectifications and repeat acts of recidivism,” it said.
ThePaper.cn also questioned whether “this systemic security failure” was caused by “indulgence towards the company based on consideration for local profits”.
All of this suggests the government must do much more to regulate the industry.
However, with a slowing economy it may be reluctant to impose too many new rules.
In an article now deleted from his Sina Weibo account Global Times editor Hu Xijin said: “This accident will surely make anti-chemical sentiment more sensitive and bring new difficulties for the safe and orderly development of the chemical industry.”
Jiangsu has long been China’s second biggest provincial economy (ranking just behind Guangdong). Yet if the blast in Tianjin is a precedent, local government officials in Jiangsu and Yancheng will soon face investigation and find out there’s a personal price to pay for chasing economic growth too recklessly.
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