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Chinese Investigators Identify Cause Of Tianjin Explosion

Safety: Investigators make recommendations, spread blame around for deadly—and costly—tragedy

by Jean-François Tremblay
February 11, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 7

Credit: ImagineChina/AP
The 2015 Tianjin blast killed more than 170 people and caused $2 billion in damage, according to some estimates.
An excavator operates among burned out cars damaged by the Tianjin explosion that occurred last August.
Credit: ImagineChina/AP
The 2015 Tianjin blast killed more than 170 people and caused $2 billion in damage, according to some estimates.

A report by China’s top governing body has identified the cause of an August 2015 explosion at a hazardous goods warehouse in Tianjin’s harbor. The catastrophe killed more than 170 people.

Assigning responsibility far and wide, investigators blamed the disaster on the negligence or corruption of 123 people in addition to the 49 previously arrested.

The immediate cause of the accident was the spontaneous ignition of dry nitrocellulose stored in a container that overheated, according to the report. Wetting agents inside the container had evaporated in the summer heat, investigators found. Flames from that initial fire reached nearby ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which exploded.

Investigators determined that the accident had a fairly limited impact on the local environment. Marine life in Bohai Bay, outside Tianjin, was not affected, the investigation found. And although hundreds of metric tons of sodium cyanide were stored at the warehouse, no one died from poisoning, the report added. Investigators noted that local authorities are still monitoring environmental quality in the area.

Investigators found that Tianjin Ruihai International Logistics, the operator of the warehouse, illegally stored hazardous materials and that its “safety management procedures were inept.” It also assigned varying degrees of blame to 74 government officials from agencies at the municipal, provincial, and national levels. Some officials, investigators found, were guilty of “taking bribes and abusing power.”

Seeking to prevent a similar catastrophe, investigators issued a list of recommendations, including the creation of a national system for monitoring hazardous chemical storage. They also recommended that firefighters be better equipped. First responders accounted for 110 of the dead.

The investigative team, assembled under the authority of the State Council—China’s top decision-making body—consisted of some 600 officials from agencies such as the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the State Administration of Work Safety, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China’s top investigative body. They reviewed thousands of documents and had access to 100,000 hours of surveillance footage, reported Xinhua, a state news agency.

The Chinese government seemed to time the release of the report so that it would attract little notice in China. It came out on Feb. 5 as most of the country was embarking on the Lunar New Year break, China’s longest and most important annual holiday.

Indeed, China has a habit of trying to bury bad news, sometimes literally. In 2011, government officials ordered the burial of two high-speed trains that had crashed even as rescuers were still looking for survivors.

The environmental group Greenpeace responded to the report by saying it does not go far enough. The group noted that hundreds of serious industrial accidents happen in China every year.

“Noncompliance and negligence on the part of companies and local administrations are among the root causes of these alarmingly frequent chemical accidents,” Greenpeace said. It called on the government to create a comprehensive system to oversee the manufacture, use, transportation, storage, and treatment of hazardous chemicals.

The State Council estimated the direct financial losses caused by the explosion at about $1 billion. This included damages to 304 buildings, 12,428 cars, and 7,533 shipping containers.

But the estimate is far lower than those made by major insurance companies. In December, the insurance firm Swiss Re said claims from the Tianjin explosion will likely exceed $2 billion when all tallied up. It called the explosion the “largest ever man-made loss event in Asia for the insurance industry.”


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