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China tightens grip on hazardous chemicals

Beijing’s disaster prevention masterplan may bring further headaches to chemical producers, shippers

by Jean-Francois Tremblay
December 8, 2016

Credit: Jean-Francois Tremblay/C&EN
An office building damaged by the August 2015 explosion in Tianjin.
Photo of an office building damaged by the August 2015 explosion in Tianjin.
Credit: Jean-Francois Tremblay/C&EN
An office building damaged by the August 2015 explosion in Tianjin.

China’s highest decision-making body, the State Council, has unveiled a three-year plan to prevent accidents involving hazardous chemicals. The plan was crafted in response to the August 2015 explosion at a hazardous goods storage site in Tianjin that killed 165 people, most of them firefighters.

Over the next three years, municipal and local governments throughout China will identify and audit all sites where hazardous chemicals are made or stored. Under the umbrella of a new group, the State Council Committee for Safe Production, officials will compile a database of the hazardous chemicals in the country.

Under the plan, producers of ammonium nitrate, nitrocellulose, sodium cyanide, and certain other hazardous chemicals will come under special scrutiny. Companies handling hazardous materials near homes will have to relocate to industrial parks. The plan also calls for improved citizens’ participation in the planning of facilities that handle hazardous goods.

Countrywide audits will certainly reduce the risk of industrial accidents involving hazardous goods, observes Kai Pflug, president of the Shanghai-based advisory firm Management Consulting - Chemicals. “Hazardous chemicals have been very frequently stored and shipped in ways that were prohibited by Chinese law,” he says.

But the country doesn’t need new regulations, Pflug says. “The accident in Tianjin wouldn’t have been so bad if existing rules had been followed,” he notes. Already, Pflug reports, European chemical companies operating in China complain that shipping regulations are too onerous. And some ports refuse to accept hazardous chemicals, forcing firms to use ports that are farther away from customers, Pflug says. “Longer road shipments don’t help safety,” he notes.

The Tianjin tragedy was triggered by the spontaneous combustion of nitrocellulose in an overheating container, investigators revealed earlier this year. The company operating the site, Tianjin Ruihai International Logistics, was later found to have breached several regulations and bribed officials in charge. Last month, a court in Tianjin condemned the chairman of Ruihai to death with a two-year reprieve. It also sentenced 49 people to jail, half of whom were government officials.



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