State of Safety in Chemical Industry in China: A Note

The death toll climbed to 64 in one of the worst industrial accidents at the Chenjiagang Industrial Park in the city of Yancheng, in Jiangsu province in China on 21st March, 2019. The explosion at a pesticide plant severely injured more than 600 people and many neighbouring factories inside the industrial park caught fire after the explosion. China’s earthquake administration reported a tremor equivalent to 2.2-magnitude at the time of the blast. The country has witnessed a series of industrial accidents ranging from mining disasters to factory fires that have accompanied the “economic growth” of the nation in the last three decades. In November, a series of blasts during the delivery of flammable gas at a chemical manufacturer killed 23 people. In 2015, 173 people died in explosion in a massive chemical warehouse in the northern city of Tianjin which is considered to be one of the worst industrial disaster in China. More than 4,000 people were killed in accidents involving hazardous chemicals in China between 2009 and 2014, according to Zhao Laijun, a professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University who has advised the Shanghai government on chemical facilities safety. An analysis mentions that the probability of 200–600 casualty accidents occurring per year in China is 59.10%. Fourteen out of thirty provinces are identified to have poor safety management with regard to hazardous chemicals. The rapid development of the petrochemical industry in China has brought with it greater challenges of hazardous chemical accidents. The above-mentioned figures indicate that China lacks systematic safety management of hazardous chemicals. The question then arises on the need of developing petrochemical industries and chemical hubs without taking care of safety of people, environmental health and sustainability.

The accidents have raised concerns about violations of safety standards. These include possible problems with rules on the testing, transporting and storing of dangerous chemicals. As far back as 2009, Chemical Industry News, a local industry publication, reported that many of China’s chemical warehouses were old and likely to have safety problems, and many others were likely operating without licenses. In 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme warned that China’s chemical and industrial parks had weak safety provisions. Weili Duan and Bin He, both members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, mentioned that much of the existing emergency response procedures were “not systemic and complete” and have highlighted poor information and organizational structure in the industry, slow response times and bad decision-making.

Apart from China’s industrial safety and emergency preparedness, the disasters have posed several questions about corruption and government efficiency. Reports point to strong political connections between the company and government officials, indicating corruption playing a huge role in the company’s growth and operations where the cost of safety and disaster management have been largely compromised. A simple example can illustrate the statement – Tianjin, the closest port to Beijing, accounts for 70% of the dangerous goods shipments into China’s largest city last year. But only three logistic companies are licensed to handle nine categories of dangerous chemicals. There are about 40 logistics companies who have tried to get licensed to handle chemicals; none got an approval. It has to be noted that the business of dangerous chemicals storage is an industry where monopolies mean it is two or three times more profitable than ordinary goods shipment.

There are instances where organizations like the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, along with Friends for Nature have sued three chemical companies. However, in January 2017 a court ruled that the companies would not have to pay compensation or apologise. In current times, the Chinese workplace safety laws encourage a culture of damage control over prevention. According to an expert in Chinese employment law Mimi Zou, “The regulatory approach has been to just respond when there’s been an accident, but obviously that doesn’t address all the risks involved … prioritising damage control over preventive [measures] just means that you’re not really addressing the root of the problem.” There are multiple cases where companies (related to disasters) have been illegally operating for years owing to its owners’ strong political ties and receiving all forms of approval (like environmental protection etc) from the concerned authorities. The present note can only be considered to be a glimpse of reality after Xi Jinping’s “anti-corruption” drive that has been enormously highlighted in People’s Daily, the government/party’s paramount mouthpiece.

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