Investigations into the cause of two explosions at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin Port in Binhai New Area in China on 12 August 2015, which claimed 121 lives, are ongoing. The explosions, which registered as an earthquake and were photographed from space, occurred within 30s of each other - shortly after firefighters arrived and began spraying water in attempts to put out a fire at the warehouse.
Over 40 types of chemicals were found at the blast site, including large quantities of sodium cyanide, ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate, calcium carbide, sodium hydrosulfide and sodium sulfide. The warehouses containing these potentially hazardous chemicals were found less than 500m away from a residential apartment building, despite regulations from China’s State Administration of Work Safety that such warehouses need to be at least 1km away from public buildings, highways and industrial enterprises.
The owner of the warehouse that exploded, Rui Hai International Logistics, appears to have all the proper licences to carry those chemicals. ‘From a licensing aspect, it seems Rui Hai company has no problem,’ says Frank Wang, deputy general manager of Randis ChemWise, a chemical safety consultancy in Shanghai. But whether the company obtained the licences through a ‘fair and impartial method’ is the issue, he says.
As part of the investigations, several top management Rui Hai personnel have been detained for questioning, including the company’s chairman, Yu Xuewei, and vice-chairman, Dong Shexuan. The latter is reported to be the son of a former police chief at Tianjin Port.
Significantly, the two have admitted to Chinese state media company Xinhua that they used personal relationships with government officials to secure approval for Rui Hai’s operations.
To tighten up chemical security, China has begun a nationwide examination of dangerous chemicals and explosives. In an effort to crack down on corruption, officials now inspecting chemical factories and facilities must not be from the local government in order to prevent chemical manufacturers from using their relationships with local officials to evade inspection, says Calisto Radithipa, co-founder of Kemcore, a mining chemical trading company based in Hong Kong.
The cause of the explosions is still unknown. Media reports speculate that the firefighters’ efforts to put out the initial fire with water may have caused the calcium carbide in the warehouse to release flammable acetylene gas, triggering the first explosion. The first explosion could have detonated the ammonium nitrate, believed to be the main culprit for the second, larger explosion that caused most of the damage to surrounding property.
The blasts sparked massive outrage among residents and across China. Tianjin residents are especially nervous about the health threats posed by exposure to the dangerous chemicals. Less than a week after the disaster, white foam appeared on Binhai New Area’s streets when it rained. Small animals like rabbits and chickens are placed in the disaster zone to test if it is safe for humans.
Radithipa says that a few unofficial chemical regulations have been enacted, such as allowing the transport of any chemical cargo only if it is within 48 hours of the vessel’s estimated time of departure, and enforcing storage limits of 300t for nitrates. But it could be near-impossible for some firms to comply with the new rules, as some factories in China produce close to 1000t of nitrates per day, while others may be more than 48 hours away from the nearest port. ‘At the moment, they [the regulators]are not thinking,’ says Radithipa.
The fires from the blasts were extinguished with sand on 15 August. Over 700 people have been injured and 54 remain missing. Several thousand more people have been displaced from their homes and are seeking refuge in nearby schools.