Tag Archives: Industrial Safety

Tianjin Blasts: Shaking Up Environmental Disaster Denial

THE CITY OF Tianjin is facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions following the double explosion at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse on Wednesday. The presence of sodium cyanide, which combines with water to form deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, has been acknowledged along with calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate — all industrial chemicals whose impact on the population of the northeastern port city may be felt through illness and shortened lives for generations to come.

For the leadership, failure to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy that has cost at least 112 lives with hundreds more injured could be just as toxic. At risk is public trust in the Party to look after the people.

Industrial accidents are commonplace in China, even in large cities. Yet the power of the second blast in particular and the amount of dramatic video footage seen on social media before the inevitable media clampdown puts this one into a class of its own.

By way of comparison, the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005, one of China’s worst comparable man-made disasters, killed six and the injuries were in the dozens. However, pollution of the Songhua River was severe. Harbin, 400 kilometers downstream, had to cut off the public water supply to avoid poisoning its residents. Environment agency minister Xie Zhenhua was eventually sacked.

The initial official response to Jilin was to cover it up. That has been the go-to response for authorities to any environmental disaster until the evidence can no longer be ignored. Officials did not admit to the Bohai Bay oil spill in 2011 until a month after it had happened.

A nationwide check ordered on dangerous chemicals and explosives following the Tianjin blasts and a blanket order to officials to enforce safety regulations seems like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Even worse will be if authorities react in their customary way and pursue a carefully managed information blackout.

Signs are not encouraging. Social media accounts and websites are already being closed down; state media is starting to craft a narrative around the laxness of businesses and workers that officials will address.

Even in these early days a finger is being pointed at Ruihai for keeping inadequate records of what was on site, following inadequate storage procedures or turning a blind eye to what safety regulations there are. Regulations keeping public transport and housing at a specific distance from dangerous industrial sites were ignored or flouted by officials.

The first-responder firefighters were ill-informed, inadequately trained and equipped, or all three. Suggestions that attempts to put out an initial fire with water inadvertently caused the chemical reactions that produced the subsequent blasts seem well founded, though, again, this Bystander cautions against early judgments on limited information. Whatever the circumstances turn out to have been, firefighters have paid a heavy toll in human life.

Assurances by officials that air and water quality levels in Tianjin are safe have been met with incredulity by residents. The 3-kilometre evacuation zone imposed on Friday will have done nothing to diminish concerns, any more than the earlier shutting off sewers to stop discharge into Bohai Bay. Many residents already know the water they drink and the air their breathe are polluted enough.

China has long disregarded environmental and public health whenever untrammelled economic development was at risk. Pockets of populations with abnormally high cancer rates in some of the most polluted areas bear silent testimony to that. The Party has seen the delivery of ever higher living standards to the broad population as the basis of its claim to a monopoly on political power.

For most Chinese, higher living standards increasingly include quality of life, not merely the quantity of material well-being — simple things like clean air and water and neighbourhoods that don’t explode.

This Bystander would like to think that the legacy of the Tianjin disaster would be that it was the one that caused that penny to drop for the authorities. That is likely wishful thinking. Scapegoats will again be found; rescue efforts will be lionized; online critics will be silenced. The policy and institutional reforms needed to ensure there is no repeat will not be carried out with the same vigour.

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Lead Poisonings Prompt Nationwide Shut Down Of Battery Factories

We have been reading reports since at least the beginning of this year that battery factories have been closed down because they are causing lead poisoning in children (this one via BBC). Now it appears the situation has deteriorated to the point where virtually the entire industry is being shut down. Bloomberg quotes Xu Hong, head of the lead-acid battery branch at the China Electrical Equipment Industry Association, as saying:

Regardless of the plants’ conditions, they’ve all been shut down, and there is no timetable now to resume operations.

Zhejiang and Guangdong are the two biggest battery-producing provinces, accounting for more than a third of the country’s output. There have been reports of lead poisoning incidents in both places. Plants in Sichuan and Henan, too, have suspended production, Bloomberg says. The BBC adds that more than 100 people around the country have been affected recently by lead and cadmium poisoning. These are likely to be both children living nearby and factory workers. In 2009 and 2010, thousands of children in several provinces who lived near metal smelters or battery factories were affected by lead poisoning.

Industrial pollution from heavy metals and environmental degradation have become highly sensitive social issues. In Inner Mongolia, after a herdsman was killed trying to stop coal mining trucks crossing traditional nomadic grazing pasture and another Mongolian died at a mine protest, it has turned into a full-scale political and security crisis, as the state media blackout testifies.

As with food safety, good intentions at national and increasingly regional level have not turned into effect policy implementation at local level. As with the attempted clean-up of the coal and steel industries before, a clamp-down on illegal lead smelters and hundreds of small, unauthorized electroplating and battery workshops has been underway since mid-month. The China Business News says that the goal is to reduce the number of battery makers to about 300 from the current 1,700.

In mid-May, the Ministry of Environmental Protection warned that “criminal penalties will be imposed upon the heads of the responsible businesses, and local chief officials will also be held accountable for pollution incidents.” The BBC says some 74 people have been detained this year in connection with lead poisonings. We are sure many of these are likely to be officials from local government, local environmental protection and health bureaus now being investigated for lax supervision. We are also sure they won’t be the last.

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Henan Coal Mine Disaster Will Accelerate Safety Drive

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No mining accident comes at a good time, but the deadly blast at the Pingyu No.4 coal mine in Yuzhou, Henan, which killed 26 miners and trapped 11 more, could scarcely have come at a worst one. State TV carried live coverage of the recent remarkable rescue of 33 copper miners in Chile and one of the three  capsules built for the rescue is to be exhibited at the Shanghai Expo. The National Energy Administration had just announced good progress on its program of closing the smaller and most dangerous mines. The Henan disaster is getting decreasing official coverage even as the rescue effort (above left) inexorably transmutes into a recovery operation. But the long-term effect will be to speed up the efforts to make the world’s most lethal mining industry less so.

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China Closes More Small And Deadly Coal Mines

While world attention has been transfixed by the rescue of 33 copper mine workers in Chile, China, the world’s largest coal producer and consumer, and which sits on a seventh of the world’s coal reserves, has announced that it shut down more than 1,350 small and dangerous coal mines in the first nine months of this year.

The closures are part of a drive to cut the industry’s appalling accident rate. China’s coal mines are the world’s most deadly; an estimated 20,000 of the country’s 5 million coal miners die each year in accidents such as this, though the official numbers are barely a seventh of that and falling: 2,631 deaths in 2009, down from more than 6,000 in 2004. Small and unregulated mines have the laxest safety precautions.

The country’s reliance on coal for the power generation that has driven its growth over the past three decades has until recently meant that safety has played a distant second fiddle to production. As recently as six years ago, four out of five coal miners killed in accidents worldwide died in a mine in China. That said, China’s largest coal mining companies now have safety records to compare with the best in the world.

The closures also support the official drive to reduce green house gas emissions by cutting the mining and use of highly polluting brown coal and lignite, and to preserve fast disappearing agricultural land which mining operations make unsuitable for farming.

The National Energy Administration says this year’s  closures have taken out 125 million tones of outdated production capacity so far. The target is to close more than 1,500 small mines this year, and the shut-downs are being hurried forward to meet it. The longer term goal is to close all small mines by 2015. This was part of a ten year plan launched in early 2006 to reorganize the country’s fragmented coal industry —  then 28,000 coal mines, of which only 2,000 were state owned —  into five or six large groups such as Shenhua Group, China’s largest coal producer, China National Coal, the second largest, and Pingshuo Coal Industry Corp, the largest exporter. There will be fewer than 10,000 small mines left by the end of this year at current rates of closure.

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The Strange Case Of Factory Suicides

We are not sure what to make of stories circulating about a series of suspected suicides at a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen. The Taiwanese company is an contract manufacturer of electronics equipment. Customers include U.S. multinationals such as Apple, Sony and Hewlett-Packard and products produced include the iPhone and Wii.

At least 10 of its workers, all under 25, have apparently committed suicide, the most recent a 19-year old  employee from Hunan who is thought to have jumped from a dormitory building. There are said to have been at least 20 failed attempts. The company has hired Buddhist monks to rid the place of evil spirits and taken practical measures such as erecting 3-meter high fences around the dormitories, hiring psychiatrists and playing music to calm workers on the assembly lines.

The plant is huge; it employs 420,000 and there is talk of poor working conditions and long hours. (An English translation of an undercover investigation by Southern Weekend is here.)  A BBC report says theories range from the presence of a suicide cluster (essentially a spate of copycat attempts) to that number of suicides being what would be expected in a population that large. Whatever the reason, factory suicides are not uncommon even if those at Foxconn are getting the most attention. Tt is a disturbing underbelly to factory life.

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Another Deadly Blast In A Chinese Coal Mine

Another deadly day in the world’s deadliest mining industry. At least 42 miners are dead and 66 trapped following an underground gas blast at the state-owned Xinxing colliery in Heilongjiang, 250 miles northeast of Harbin near the Russian border. Xinhua said more than 400 miners on shift had escaped and 29 were in hospital injured, six seriously. The blast occurred 400 metros below the surface at 2.30 a.m., cutting power, ventilation and communication links. Mines have been working flat out to meet additional demand for coal caused by heavy snows in southeastern China. Despite a drive to close small mines, where safety standards are often laxest, in the first nine months of this year, China’s coal mines had 11 serious accidents with 303 deaths — an average of more than one a day.

Update: The death toll has risen to 87 as of Sunday morning, Xinhua reports, making this the deadliest mine accident in nearly two years.

Update: The death toll has risen to 107 as of Wednesday morning, Xinhua reports.

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Another Fatal Mining Landslide

Another horrendous day for the mining industry. At least 80 people are feared dead following a massive mountain landslide near Chongquing that buried an iron ore plant and six houses under “millions of cubic meters” of rock and earth, Xinhua reports. Seven people are reported to have been rescued. Power is out and communications down in the area.

While it is not yet known what caused the mid-afternoon landslide there is inevitable speculation it would have been the result of mining activity.  Land subsidence, cave-ins and landslides are commonplace in what is one of the world’s most deadly industries. Xinhua has reported that there were 400,000 mining accidents last year. It was only last September that 276 died in Shanxi province after a waste reservoir on a mountainside collapsed deluging a village below in a sea of mud and rocks.


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