Eight months after a chemical plant explosion at an industrial park in Jiangsu Province, China, killed 78 and hospitalized over 600, China is penalizing some senior officials and launching a new round of national safety inspections. Yet experts worry that without more comprehensive efforts, the country’s fast-expanding chemical industry may still be vulnerable to deadly accidents.
On Nov. 15, at a meeting of the State Council (China’s cabinet), two vice governors of Jiangsu Province received disciplinary warnings. Earlier, authorities had arrested two dozen corporate executives, local officials, and safety assessment agents. They were found to be responsible for inadequate safety management at the company, Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical, where the March 21 blast occurred.
At the meeting, officials also vowed to enhance chemical safety management and increase surveillance to prevent major accidents. Except for a round of nationwide safety inspections, however, they released no new concrete measures.
The Jiangsu blast and a 2018 explosion at a ChemChina facility that killed 23 were major setbacks in China’s effort to improve chemical safety. Officials jump-started the initiative after a massive explosion at a hazardous goods warehouse in Tianjin in 2015 killed more than 170 people. One significant step was a plan to forcibly relocate certain chemical factories to well-monitored industrial parks.
Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Beijing-based civil society organization, attributes the Jiangsu blast and other accidents to loosened local government oversight. “While local governments should be the major responsible agency to ensure chemical safety, they may soften their control for local economic development,” Ma says. Local stakeholders and chemical buyers are also essential to pushing chemical plants to maintain safe and clean manufacturing, he adds.
In 2018, China’s chemical output was worth $2.1 trillion, according to Chinese government statistics, accounting for 40% of the world’s total and going to nearly all major chemical firms. In May, IPE released a report identifying BASF, Clariant, DuPont, and Merck KGaA as possible buyers of Jiangsu Tianjiayi’s chemical products.
“Many of these clients only pursue cheap supplies without caring about a clean and safe supply chain,” Ma says. “If they took responsible measures, they would form strong pressure on Chinese chemical manufacturers.”