Update: 47 dead after Chinese chemicals plant explosion

Article by Amanda Jasi

THE death toll following an explosion at a Chinese chemicals plant has now reached 47, reports state news agency Xinhua. Another Xinhua report adds that 640 people are receiving medical treatment in hospitals, 90 of whom are seriously injured.

The Financial Times (FT) reports that the manager of the company which owned the plant, Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Company, was among those injured.

Xinhua reports that a fire broke out at the plant, triggering the explosion, which occurred in Chenjiagang Industrial Park, in Yancheng, Jiangsu province, eastern China. It happened at 14:50 local time on 21 March and according to Bloomberg the blast triggered a 2.2-magnitude seismic shock. FT reports that the fire was not brought under control until 03:00. The incident is reportedly China’s worst industrial accident in recent years, the shockwave blowing out windows as far as 6 km away.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports that the plant was flattened and 16 nearby factories were damaged to varying degrees, though previously it was reported that production at other plants in the area was unaffected. Other nearby buildings, including schools, and cars were also damaged, and witnesses told SCMP that they were sent tumbling into the air.

Though reports from the ground as to how many people were evacuated from the area vary, figures go as high as 4,000 which was reported by AFP.  Evacuation was carried out as a precaution against leaks and additional explosions, reports Bloomberg, adding that local schools were closed. Reuters reports that roads to the plant were sealed.

Chinese president Xi Jinping said that “all-out efforts” should be made to rescue those that are trapped by rubble and treat the injured, reports Xinhua. He reportedly added that “relief work must be well done to maintain social stability”.

Reportedly, Xi also said that warnings should be strengthened to prevent environmental pollution and secondary disasters, and authorities should identify the cause of this accident as quickly as possible. He also demanded that all levels of government strengthen inspection procedures.

The Chinese Government claimed that it would crack down on industrial safety following the 2015 Tianjin explosion which killed 165 people, injured 798 and left eight people missing. But these events continue to happen, much to the public’s dismay. For example, last year a blast caused by a chemical gas leak killed 23 people and another blast at a chemicals plant killed 19 people.

Following the recent incident “relevant” personnel have been detained by the public security bureau, reports the FT. Reuters reports that authorities in the Jiangsu province will inspect chemical producers and warehouses, and companies found to be violating regulations regarding dangerous chemicals will be shut down.

Xinhua reports that an investigation team, headed by Vice Minister of Emergency Management Huang Ming, has been organised by China’s State Council to probe the explosion. The probe is said to already be underway. Bloomberg reports that the State Council will oversee the investigation.

The Ministry of Emergency Management has dispatched a team to the site and urged all-out rescue efforts, reports Xinhua. Firefighters are also aiding in the rescue.

Medical experts have been mobilised to aid in rescue and relief, reports Xinhua. According to Bloomberg, 3,500 medical workers at 16 hospitals have been mobilised treating the injured.

The Ministry of Environment and Ecology also dispatched teams to the site, reports Xinhua.

Resulting pollution

The blast polluted the air and rivers several kilometres away, says SCMP.

Reportedly tests conducted in the morning on 22 March, 3.5 km downwind of the explosion, found nitrogen oxide levels “almost twice the national air safety level for industrial zones”. These are levels that the Jiangsu Ecology and Environment Department says can cause respiratory infection, reports SCMP.

Rivers in the industrial park were found to be polluted with dichloroethane and dichloromethane, says SCMP. The levels reportedly exceeded the national surface water quality standard by 2.8 times and 8.4 times, respectively.  

However, SCMP says that outside the gate of the industrial plant, or 3 km downstream of the sewage discharge point, no volatile organic chemicals were found. According to Reuters, Tianjiayi Chemical produces more than 30 organic chemical compounds. On 21 March, outside the blast zone, acetone and chloroform levels were within normal levels, reports Reuters.

SCMP reports that local authorities are taking measures to prevent polluted water from flowing outside the park.

Past violations

The latest incident at a Tianjiayi Chemical plant is not the first incident involving the company. It has received six administrative punishments in the past related to waste management, environmental impact, and air pollution.

In 2014 the company’s legal representative Zhang Qinyue and its former purchasing manager Wu Guozhong were arrested on suspicion of environmental violations, says Bloomberg. In 2017, they were sentenced for 18 and 15 months respectively and fined 300,000 yuan (US$44,655.5) and 200,000 yuan, respectively. The company was fined 1m yuan.

In 2018, China's State Administration for Work Safety cited 13 types of safety hazards at the company, including mishandling of tanks of benzene, reports Bloomberg. Benzene was reportedly involved in Thursday’s explosion.

Bloomberg reports that since 2016 Tianjiayi Chemical has accumulated 1.79m yuan in fines for violations of environmental regulations.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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