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Planners should heed Nature’s warnings

01 June 2008

With May 2008’s earthquake in China’s Sichuan province still producing aftershocks, our thoughts go out to the survivors of this continuing disaster, who will now have to rebuild their homes, their workplaces and their lives. The official death toll is likely to top 80,000 and the disaster, the country's strongest earthquake in 58 years, has left five million people homeless. By the last weekend in May, the China Seismological Bureau had monitored 182 aftershocks in the southwest of the country,

The epicentre of the May 12th earthquake, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale was in Wenchuan county where several chemical plants were destroyed at Shifang City trapping many workers under rubble and releasing an 80 tonne leak of liquid ammonia. A number of phosphate mines at Qingping, 100 km from the earthquake's epicentre also collapsed, burying hundreds of miners.

The Beijing-based State Administration of Work Safety was quick to order coal mines, chemical plants and oil and gas wells to halt production to avoid further casualties. Companies in affected areas evacuated workers and will not resume production until conditions allow for safe operations.

There are as many as 50 chemical facilities with damage and around 30 of these could be producing toxic wastes, adding pollution to the long list of problems affecting the earthquake area. The Sichuan Province is a known seismic hazard area. Fault lines run right through the province and seismic maps, produced over the past 50 years, show high earthquake risk in the region. However, studying the seismic risk charts, shows that the majority of China exhibits a low risk of seismic activity. However, Shifang city in the Sichuan Province is in the high risk area in the south west of the country, bordered by the Tibetan Plateau in the west and by the Three Gorges and the Yangtze River in the east.

With the detailed seismic information available for some decades, it is quite staggering that so many susceptible plants, many involving hazardous areas, should have been constructed on clearly defined geological fault lines. There is logic for building plants near raw material sources and Shifang is rich in phosphate rock. There are therefore a number of firms producing phosphoric acid, phosphate fertilisers, and phosphorus derivatives in the immediate area. The Wenchuan earthquake has largely destroyed these plants.

Despite the convenience of having a raw materials source in the plant’s back yard, the planners will surely consider the geological evidence before proceeding with the reconstruction of as many as 50 process units damaged in the earthquake.

Few would have predicted such devastation but history suggests that it was bound to happen. Could this be Nature’s abrupt way of telling industry where to site its process units?

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