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Illegal custody of hazardous waste caused Chinese chemical blast that killed 78 people

18 November 2019

A chemical blast in eastern China that killed 78 people and injured hundreds more was caused by the illegal custody of hazardous chemical waste, the incident’s lead investigative team has said.

The plant before the blast - Image: Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical
The plant before the blast - Image: Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical

According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, the State Council Investigation group identified the incident as “an extremely severe production safety accident caused by prolonged illegal custody of hazardous chemical waste.” The group attributed the explosion to the spontaneous ignition of nitrified waste which had been illegally stored at a plant owned by Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Company in Yancheng city.

The incident on March 25 was one of China’s worst industrial accidents, razing an industrial park and blowing out the windows of surrounding buildings. In addition to the 78 people killed in the blast, 76 people were severely injured and over 500 people were sent to hospital. According to Xinhua, the blast caused a direct economic loss of around 1.99 billion yuan ($284.3 million).

The State Council Investigation group said that Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical was responsible for the explosion as a result of its negligence of laws and regulations in relation to environmental protection and production safety in dealing with chemical waste. Misconduct was also identified in emergency management, environmental protection, industry, market supervision, planning and other departments in Jiangsu Province.

Following the State Council Investigation group’s findings, police in Jiangsu announced on November 15 that they had taken “criminal coercive measures” against 44 people for their roles in the explosion. The 44 people, which includes Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical’s company controller and general manager, have been investigated by police. In China, criminal coercive measures can include summons by force, bail, residential surveillance, detention or arrest.

In all, 61 public servants from local environmental protection administrations and emergency management departments have been held accountable for violations of discipline and law, or for dereliction of duty in the accident, Xinhua reports.

In October, the Chinese government stepped up efforts to end the illegal dumping of hazardous chemical waste by 2025. As part of a nationwide crackdown on the chemical industry following the Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical blast, a plan was established to relocate 80% of toxic chemicals away from residential areas. The government has said that all regions must have a comprehensive hazardous chemical monitoring system in place by the end of 2025.

Hazardous waste treatment will also be part of a new corporate environmental credit system which will see firms being publicly blacklisted and denied financial assistance if they violate the new rules. 

The ecology and environment ministry said in a notice released on October 21 that local authorities must also make plans for integrated waste disposal facilities and set up funding mechanisms for the transfer of hazardous waste. Local governments will be encouraged to set up more integrated “industrial bases” in sectors such as petrochemicals and nonferrous metals. The ministry also encouraged the use of cement kilns and blast furnaces to dispose of hazardous waste. 

Shanghai and the neighbouring provinces of Jiangsu and Zheijang will be made to adopt the new measures by the end of 2020. Regions along the Yangtze river together with Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei must enforce the rules by 2022. 

The safety crackdown could force hundreds of smaller, private firms out of the market, leading to consolidation while also modernising the chemical sector and driving it towards more efficient production.

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