Tianjin blast: head of China’s industrial safety administration accused of corruption
Things go from bad to worse in Tianjin as rain hampers cleanup efforts following the massive warehouse explosion in the port city
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TIANJIN, China—Thunderstorms complicated recovery efforts from last week’s massive explosions at a warehouse in China’s Tianjin port that killed at least 114 people, left 57 missing and potentially exposed thousands of people to dangerous chemicals—including some that could become flammable on contact with water.
Experts have expressed concern that rain could spread some of the vast quantities of hazardous material at the site or set off chemical reactions sparking further explosions.
Underscoring the weakness of China’s industrial safety system, the head of the national organization responsible for those efforts has been accused of corruption and placed under investigation for suspected “severe violation of discipline and law,” the ruling Communist Party’s anti-graft watchdog said August 18.
No details were given about the allegations against Yang Dongliang, who was appointed head of the State Administration of Work Safety three years ago and also worked in state industry and local government in Tianjin for 18 years, including as a vice mayor from 2001 to 2012.
What we know so far:
- As of August 18, 50 firefighters were confirmed killed and 52 others were among the 57 missing, making the disaster the deadliest ever for Chinese first-responders.
- The blasts originated at a warehouse for hazardous material, where 700 tons of sodium cyanide—a toxic chemical that can explode on contact with water—was being stored in amounts that violated safety rules.
- Cyanide contamination was up to 28 times the level considered safe at eight of 29 testing sites within the blast zone, said Bao Jingling, chief engineer of the Tianjin Environmental Bureau.
- Officials have said there have been no substantial leaks of sodium cyanide. They say they have sealed all waterways leading into the sea from the blast site and built retaining walls to prevent any runoff.
- More than half of Toyota’s China production capacity will be offline at least through August 19. The company has operations near the blast evacuation zone and suspended three production lines, which produce 530,000 vehicles a year.
- Thousands of Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai and Renault cars, mostly pricey imports, parked on lots near the blast were decimated.
- The operations of Panasonic, logistics company Singamas Container Holdings and Deere & Co. have also been disrupted.
- More than 40 types of hazardous chemicals were being stored at the site with a total volume of about 3,000 tons, deputy national fire chief Niu Hueguang was quoted as saying on the China Fire Services’ official website.
- Insurance claims resulting from the explosions could rise to $1.5 billion or higher, according ratings agency Fitch and Credit Suisse
Rain threatens efforts
“If the rain gets heavy, water will have to be drained. It is not good for water to remain in the craters,” Bao told a news conference, referring to massive cavities left by the explosions.
Sodium cyanide can form a flammable gas upon contact with water, and several hundred tons would be a clear violation of rules cited by state media that the warehouse could store no more than 10 tons at a time.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has ordered authorities at all levels to check whether companies that produce and store hazardous materials comply with safety regulations, including if they are a safe distance from residential areas and do not exceed storage limits.
China’s Cabinet, the State Council, said an investigation team headed by Executive Vice Minister of Public Security Yang Huanning has launched a probe into the explosion. Media reports say 10 people have been taken into custody, including top officials of the warehouse’s management company.
In unusually strong language, the Cabinet referred to the Aug. 12 blasts as an “especially major fire and explosion incident.” Along with the cause, the probe will identify those responsible and provide recommendations on how to deal with them.
Chinese work safety rules require such storage facilities to be at least 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) away from residences, public buildings and highways. But online map searches show the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse was within 500 metres of both an expressway and a 100,000-square meter (1 million-square foot) apartment complex. Those apartments’ walls were singed and its windows were shattered, and all residents have been evacuated.
Tianjin officials have been hard-pressed to answer how the warehouse was allowed to operate in its location. Questions also have been raised about management of the warehouse, and the country’s top prosecuting office announced Sunday that it was setting up a team to investigate possible offences related to the massive blasts, including dereliction of duty and abuse of power. Ruihai’s general manager is in a hospital under police watch.
The Tianjin blasts are among the deadliest industrial accidents in China in recent years. In June 2013, a fire at a poultry plant in the northeastern province of Jilin killed 121 people. In August 2014, a dust explosion at a metal plant in the eastern province of Jiangsu left 97 people dead.
Associated Press video journalist Wong Wai-bor in Tianjin and writers Christopher Bodeen, Ian Mader and Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.