Tian­jin blasts high­light risk of chem­i­cal stor­age

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - An­drew Ja­cobs ©2015 The New York Times Ex­plo­sions con­tin­ued on A10

This bustling port city about a 90-minute drive from the Chi­nese cap­i­tal con­fronted scenes of death and dev­as­ta­tion Thurs­day huge gray plumes of smoke, vast park­ing lots of charred ve­hi­cles, blocks of high-rises with their blownout win­dows and ques

— tions about what had caused the ex­plo­sions at a ware­house stor­ing a witches’ brew of toxic chem­i­cals.

As the fa­tal­i­ties reached 50 from the blasts Wed­nes­day night, res­cue work­ers combed the rub­ble of the city’s flat­tened ware­house dis­trict for bod­ies while hun­dreds of peo­ple crowded hos­pi­tals. Through­out the day, hun­dreds more lined up to do­nate blood in the wilt­ing heat.

The blasts, at a com­pany li­censed to store haz­ardous chemic als, left more than 500 peo­ple in­jured, 52 of them crit­i­cally, and pro­duced shock waves felt for miles.

Many of the wounded were

hit by fly­ing glass and other de­bris as thou­sands of apart­ment win­dows blew in, some more than a mile from the site of the ex­plo­sions.

At least 12 of the dead were fire­fight­ers who had re­sponded to ear­lier re­ports of a blaze at the chem­i­cal stor­age site run by Rui­hai In­ter­na­tional Lo­gis­tics, a 4-year-old com­pany that un­loads and stores haz­ardous cargo, state news media and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials said.

Of­fi­cials have not ex­plained pre­cisely how fire­fight­ers sought to ex­tin­guish the ini­tial blaze. But at least some of the stored chem­i­cals were known to pro­duce flammable gas when wet, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that the fire­fight­ers might have in­ad­ver­tently con­trib­uted to the dis­as­ter if they sprayed the flames with wa­ter.

Res­i­dents frus­trated

On Thurs­day af­ter­noon, fires at the site con­tin­ued to pro­duce a steady cloud of smoke af­ter Tian­jin of­fi­cials, un­sure about the na­ture of the chem­i­cals, de­cided to let the blazes burn out on their own. State news media also re­ported that a mil­i­tary team of spe­cial­ists in han­dling chem­i­cals had been sent to Tian­jin.

Res­i­dents of the Bin­hai dis­trict, frus­trated by the lack of re­li­able in­for­ma­tion, said they were un­sure whether the air was safe, and many peo­ple con­tin­ued to wear dis­pos­able face masks through­out the day.

“Right now we don’t know any­thing,” said Sun Meirong, 52, an of­fice cleaner who trudged down 13 flights of stairs to safety with her 1-year-old grand­son af­ter the ex­plo­sions blew in the win­dows and front door of her apart­ment.

The dev­as­ta­tion was worst in the port area, a sparsely pop­u­lated ex­panse of ware­houses and park­ing lots nearly 40 miles from the heart of Tian­jin. Had the blast oc­curred dur­ing the day, the death toll would have most likely been far higher. Fa­vor­able winds Thurs­day also shielded res­i­dents from greater harm by blow­ing the toxic plume out to sea.

Rui­hai’s web­site was in­ac­ces­si­ble, and calls to the com­pany were met with a busy sig­nal. Also in­ac­ces­si­ble was the web­site for the Tian­jin Ad­min­is­tra­tion for In­dus­try and Com­merce, the agency that col­lects in­for­ma­tion about com­pa­nies, their ex­ec­u­tives and share­hold­ers.

Green­peace warn­ing

Ac­cord­ing to the Tian­jin Tanggu En­vi­ron­men­tal Mon­i­tor­ing Sta­tion, the com­pany stored a col­lec­tion of toxic in­dus­trial chem­i­cals, in­clud­ing sodium cyanide, toluene di­iso­cyanate and cal­cium car­bide. The com­pany was also li­censed to han­dle highly com­bustible sub­stances such as com­pressed and liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas.

In a state­ment Thurs­day, Green­peace warned that many of the sub­stances posed wor­ry­ing threats to hu­man health. It said that sodium cyanide, a com­pound used in min­ing, is es­pe­cial- ly toxic, while toluene di­iso­cyanate, used to make polyurethane prod­ucts, is a car­cino­gen and highly ex­plo­sive.

With rain forecast for Fri­day, Green­peace warned about the dan­ger of air­borne pol­lu­tants seep­ing into ground­wa­ter.

The dis­clo­sure that dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals were stored less than a mile from dense residential ar­eas raised ques­tions about the gov­ern­ment’s role in mon­i­tor­ing oper­a­tions at the site.

It ap­pears that of­fi­cials in Tian­jin were aware of the risks. In re­cent weeks, of­fi­cials with the city’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Work Safety met with a num­ber of lo­cal chem­i­cal com­pa­nies and asked them to en­sure the safety of the sub­stances on their premises, cit­ing sum­mer weather that in­cluded “ex­treme heat, high hu­mid­ity and heavy rain,” ac­cord­ing to an Aug. 6 post­ing on the agency’s web­site.

‘Right now we don’t know any­thing.’ Sun Meirong Ex­plo­sion sur­vivor


Smoke bil­lows Thurs­day from the site of an ex­plo­sion that re­duced a park­ing lot filled with new cars to charred re­mains at a ware­house in the Chi­nese port city of Tian­jin. Fa­tal­i­ties from the blast, at a com­pany li­censed to store haz­ardous chem­i­cals, reached 50 and more than 500 peo­ple were in­jured, 52 of them crit­i­cally. The ex­plo­sion re­port­edly pro­duced shock­waves that were felt for miles.

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