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Industrial Safety

Prison sentences handed down in China plant explosion case

53 people receive terms of up to 20 years for a deadly 2019 accident

by Hepeng Jia, special to C&EN
December 3, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 47


A photo of a chemical plant in China that exploded.
Credit: Aly Song/Reuters/Newscom
Tianjiayi Chemical made intermediates for multiple US and European firms.

Fifty-three people deemed responsible for a disastrous chemical plant explosion last year in China’s Jiangsu Province have been sentenced to prison.

Yancheng Intermediate People’s Court, whose jurisdiction covers the Jiangsu region, and seven local courts made the ruling Nov. 30. Seven companies involved in the explosion were fined. The crimes cited included illegally storing hazardous chemicals, issuing false environmental reports, and taking bribes.

The explosion occurred March 21, 2019, when nitrification waste that had been illegally stored by Tianjiayi Chemical spontaneously combusted, causing 78 deaths, 76 severe injuries, and 640 hospitalizations. The blast’s direct economic loss is estimated at $300 million, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Zhang Qinyue, former general manager of Tianjiayi, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The former and current chairs of Nijiaxiang Group, Tianjiayi’s parent company, were sentenced to 12 and 13 years, respectively. The courts also sentenced 15 public servants, including the former head of the local bureau of emergency management, to 3–7.5 years for taking bribes from Tianjiayi and negligence of duty.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Beijing-based nonprofit group, says the severe punishments should be a warning.

“The heavy sentence, particularly against officials who sided with the wrongdoing business executives and the environmental assessment professionals who issued false assessment reports, should force those to refrain from their malpractices,” Ma says. But punishment alone is not enough, he maintains, as making hazardous chemicals for multinational giants remains a profitable business in China.

Despite several rounds of enhanced safety inspections after the Tianjiayi explosion, deadly accidents continue to occur in China. In late September, for example, a chemical plant explosion in Hubei Province killed five workers.

Ma says IPE has set up a database of millions of official records of unsafe behavior by industry. Accidents like the Tianjiayi blast might have been avoided if the database had been checked in advance, he says. Before the explosion, several official records of Tianjiayi’s malpractice were filed in the system.“After the Tianjiayi accident, some of them [multinational chemical firms] agreed to examine our database for data containing misconduct involving companies in their supply chains, but few of them have committed to completely washing out supplies from these poorly behaving plants,” Ma says.



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