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Safety

Blast at China’s Wanhua kills four

Accident at world’s largest producer of key polyurethane material adds to deadly year for China’s chemical industry

by Jean-François Tremblay
September 22, 2016

Credit: JF Tremblay/C&EN
Wanhua Chemical’s main production base in Yantai, China.

A Sept. 20 explosion at a Wanhua Chemical plant in Yantai, China, killed four people and injured another four. The deadly accident occurred a day before Greenpeace released a report on the Chinese chemical industry’s poor safety record.

Wanhua is a leading producer of polyurethane raw materials and other industrial chemicals. It operates major sites in Ningbo and Yantai, China, as well as in Hungary.

The blast occurred during maintenance work at a methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) plant that opened in 2014. Wanhua is the world’s top producer of MDI, which is used to make polyurethane. The company is still analyzing the cause of the explosion but says its preliminary investigation indicates that it occurred in a crude MDI purification tank that, at the time, was holding the material at pressure and temperature levels within its design specifications.

Listed on the Shanghai stock exchange but partly owned by Yantai’s municipal government, Wanhua has emerged in recent years as a major competitor to the Western polyurethane material suppliers BASF, Covestro, and Huntsman Corp. Wanhua has been studying the construction of a complex on the U.S. Gulf Coast that would produce MDI and other materials.

Until this week, Wanhua had an apparently clean industrial safety record. Company CEO Zengtai Liao spoke to C&EN earlier this year about setting Wanhua as an example the rest of the Chinese industry could learn from.

The tragedy occurred just as Greenpeace released its report on safety in the Chinese chemical industry. Studying publicly-accessible sources, the environmental group counted 232 chemical-related accidents in China from January to August—almost one per day.

More than half of the events occurred during shipping, and a quarter happened during production. Accidents this year caused 199 deaths and 400 injuries.

“China’s chemicals industry is the largest in the world, but it is appallingly under-regulated,” says Cheng Qian, Greenpeace East Asia’s assistant manager for toxics. Greenpeace is calling on the Chinese government to “radically overhaul” its chemicals management system and introduce greater transparency.

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