News / Asia

Analysts: China's Industrial Disasters Driven by Weak Enforcement

China in recent weeks has suffered a series of industrial disasters, including one of the largest oil spills in its history.  Authorities have taken measures, some of them harsh, to prevent accidents.  But analysts say safety standards and punishments for those who flout them are too weak.

In the port city of Dalian, China is still cleaning up an oil spill after an explosion last month. Workers, after off-loading oil from a tanker ship, used a cleaning agent inappropriately, igniting fuel and sending thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the bay.

Chinese authorities quickly mobilized volunteers to clean up what they say was about 1,500 tons of oil.  Last week they declared the clean-up a victory that kept the slick from spreading to international waters.

Inaccurate estimates

But an American expert visited the area last week and says the official estimate is ridiculously low and that oil has likely spread hundreds of kilometers, perhaps as far as North Korea.

Rick Steiner, an independent marine conservation consultant, estimates at least 60,000 tons of oil spilled into the sea.

"The government and the industry habitually understate the size of the spill and the impacts and they overstate the effectiveness of their response," Steiner said. "That happened in Alaska, that's happened in the Gulf of Mexico right now, that happens in all oil spills.  But, it's been particularly severe here and I think people deserve to know what the government and what the responsible parties here know."

He said the explosion emptied a tanker filled with 90,000 tons of oil.  Some of it burned, but workers recovered thousands of barrels of more oil than officials say was spilled. Although Chinese authorities say most of the spill has been cleaned up, Steiner estimates that more than half the oil is still in the sea.

Poor safety standards

And, he said health and safety standards for the thousands of workers and fishermen cleaning up the spill were ignored. Those collecting spilled oil, for a reward of about $40 a barrel, lacked protective gear and many used their bare hands to scoop up the crude.

"They were coated in oil," said Steiner.  "This is very toxic stuff.  It absorbs through the skin.  If you breathe the vapors you're inhaling it.  And, I saw at least one fisherman that was just almost catatonic.  He was unresponsive and listless and almost in some sort of a stupor from the toxic shock of chemical exposure, who was rushed off to the hospital." Steiner said he heard many others were in the same condition.

China's handling of the spill highlights the challenges in meeting safety standards and demand for energy to fuel economic growth. Most of its energy from coal and the country has some of the most dangerous mines in the world, claiming close to 3,000 lives a year.

In the past month alone, more than 100 miners have died in floods, gas leaks or explosions.

Authorities have been cracking down on coal mine safety problems, and say they achieved a slight drop in the death toll.

Corruption thwarts safety efforts

However, Robin Munro, deputy director of China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong, questions government figures.  He says campaigns to improve safety are thwarted by corrupt coal mine owners who pay off safety inspectors and are protected by local officials.

"It's not that the industry is unprofitable and cannot afford to make the necessary safety provisions.  It's not that at all.  Huge fortunes are made in the coal industry in China," Munro said. "It is simply that the coal mine owners are not held criminally responsible when they violate the law in this way."

He adds only a handful of coal mine owners are criminally prosecuted despite hundreds of fatal accidents every year.

In a sign of how widespread the problem is, Premier Wen Jiabao in July ordered mine bosses to work in the pits alongside workers.  The idea was that supervisors would better enforce safety standards if they had to share the same risks as ordinary miners. But state media reports say in a recent accident the mine's managers were the only survivors, indicating the orders are being ignored.  

Toxic leaks

There are other problems.  A chemical leak last month from a gold and copper mine in southern China into a nearby river killed 2,000 tons of fish.  

The company, China's largest gold producer, initially blamed flood waters for the leak.  But an investigation revealed waste-water discharges were too high and flowed from an illegal drain.

Local officials, whose promotions depend on local economic growth, ignore or lightly punish safety violators, says Alex Wang with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Since the late 1970s, China has been passing a series of environmental laws, regulations, and they've been gradually strengthening their environmental enforcement framework.  But, I think overall it's well known that there is still a lot of implementation problems in the system," said Wang. "So, I think the real question is, right now with this series of accidents, is this the point where there will finally be a wake-up call."

In other recent incidents, floods last month washed thousands of barrels of toxic chemicals, oil, resin, and fertilizer into two Chinese rivers. Authorities say they recovered almost all the barrels, that there was very little leakage, and that water quality was not affected.

China's state media says police have arrested those responsible for improperly storing the drums, but it is not clear what possible punishment they face.

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