China has launched a month-long nationwide probe into hazardous chemicals, mines, transportation, and fire safety one week after a chemical plant explosion in eastern Jiangsu province killed 78 people.
Observers say that will put the world’s largest chemical industry under tighter scrutiny and regulation of the management of hazardous chemicals to prevent similar man-made disasters from happening again.
Some argue the sector’s malpractice and corruption is so deeply-rooted, however, that any quick-fix measures are unlikely to change the “blood-stained” growth pattern of the industry.
Authorities continue investigating the cause of last Friday’s blast in Chenjiagan Industrial Park in Xiangshui county, which injured another 600 people.
State media reported that a manufacturing facility belonging to Tianjiayi Chemical Co that contained benzene, a highly flammable chemical, has been linked to the blast.
Tianjiayi Chemical is a pesticide maker and producer of more than 30 chemical compounds. In February, the State Administration of Work Safety found 13 types of safety risks at the factory, including the mishandling of toxic benzene tanks.
According to local environmental protection bureaus, the producer has rolled up more than $262,000 in fines since 2016 for breaches of environmental regulations.
“The explosion in Xiangshui has uncovered much negligence in law enforcement. For example, the staff’s [lack of] qualifications [in managing hazardous chemicals],” said Cao Mingde, professor of law, environment legislation at the China University of Political Science and Law.
“Also," he added, "two top executives of Tianjiayi Chemical who have been convicted of violations of environment pollution and illegal management of hazardous chemicals, should have been banned from undertaking similar business ventures” for a minimum period of two years.
Lessons not learned
Mingde said a sweeping overhaul of China’s chemical sector is much needed, with an urgency to facilitate legislation governing the management of hazardous chemicals and tighten regulations to ensure strict enforcement.
Similar calls, though, were heard in the wake of the 2015 blast in Tianjin that took 173 lives.
But few lessons appear to have been learned as statistics show that 620 chemical accidents have occurred over the past three years, claiming a total of 728 lives.
“There is an urgent need to enact the Dangerous Chemical Safety Law and bring systemic change to chemical management,” said Greenpeace East Asia toxics campaigner Deng Tingting in an email to VOA.
She noted that a national law, which was proposed after the Tianjin explosion, is still being drafted. The law has been slowed because of government restructuring and resistance from industries.
After the Tianjin blast, the investigative body proposed using market mechanisms to encourage better management, increasing transparency, and improving the legal system. But she said few of those suggestions have been implemented.
Citing the matter’s sensitivity, a representative at Jiangsu Chemical Industry Association and a chemistry engineering professor, contacted by VOA, refused to comment.
An industry insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, blamed illicit businesses, saying the government can’t possibly monitor the country’s 26,000-strong chemical producers 24/7 like a babysitter.
He also argued that the minimum distance between a chemical plant and a residential area, currently at 500 meters by law, should be flexible in accordance with the risk level a chemical plant poses.
Both Cao and Deng urged increasing the minimum distance as it seems insufficient to prevent risks after several schools and kindergartens, located two kilometers away from the Jiangsu blast site, were found to have been affected. Estimates show that one-third of the country’s chemical producers are set up in densely-populated areas.
Wu Lihong, a long-time environmental activist in Jiangsu, is pessimistic about pledges to overhaul the sector. He claimed local officials not only cut corners, but also take bribes and collude with businesses to maximize the province’s or their own personal gains.
The province has the highest number of chemical producers with approximately 4,500.
“Over the past decade, Jiangsu has made one of the largest financial contributions to the central government," said Wu. "It serves as a cash cow for the central government. So, businesses go to authorities, who will cut corners for them by lowering environmental standards or making their trouble go away, even if an explosion is involved.”
Making things worse, the sector’s financially-disadvantaged workers often side with their business owners in fending off environmentalists or reporters, who try to bring their malpractice or pollution to light.
“Workers at chemical plants [are fully aware that] their own health is at risk, but they are given a salary level, which is 35 to 50 percent higher than that of their peers in the shoemaking and metal hardware industries," Wu said. "So, many take up the chores, putting incomes before their health. People in the poor county of Xiangshui [are short-sighted and] would prefer to be poisoned to death than starved to death,”
Any whistleblowers there will be violently suppressed or even imprisoned, he said.
This is something he knows from personal experience; Wu previously served a three-year jail term when a local court enacted retribution for his 10-year crusade against pollution in the Jiangsu's Lake Tai.