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China p-Xylene Plant Explodes For Second Time In Less Than Two Years

Plant Safety: Chemical warfare unit and more than 600 firefighters mobilize to put out huge blaze

by Jean-Francois Tremblay
April 9, 2015 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 93, ISSUE 15

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Credit: Newscom
At least 14 people were injured in an explosion at this p-xylene plant in China.

The explosion of three naphtha tanks at a plant producing p-xylene in Zhangzhou, in China’s coastal province of Fujian, caused a huge fire that reignited at least twice over two days and needed hundreds of firefighters to control it.

The accident happened on April 6 at Teng­long Aromatic Hydrocarbon. The same facility had already experienced a less serious blast in July 2013.

Television reports from the explosion showed flames shooting dozens of feet into the air. China’s state news agency, Xinhua, reported that 14 people were injured and 29,000 area residents evacuated.

Zhangzhou’s fire department posted on Weibo—the Chinese equivalent of Twitter—that 610 firefighters and 122 fire engines from the cities of Zhangzhou, Xiamen, Longyan, and Quanzhou worked together on the blaze. The fire department also noted that soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army’s chemical warfare unit also helped out.

For many in China, p-xylene symbolizes the risks of chemical production. Large protests have erupted in recent years in the cities of Xiamen, Maoming, Dalian, and Kunming to demand that p-xylene facilities be either shut down or not built at all. Elsewhere in the world the material, used in the production of polyester fiber and resin, is produced without great fuss.

Going forward, it will be tough for the chemical industry to build new plants in China, predicts Ping Deng, a former Greenpeace field researcher who previously wrote about the impact of coal conversion plants on the environment in China. The Zhangzhou accident occurred just a few months after China implemented its strictest-ever environmental protection law, she observes.

Deng expects that chemical producers will have to make greater efforts to engage the public before building facilities. Moreover, she says, “companies will have to make sure that implementation of their projects complies with the promises they publicly make.”

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