Following deadly Tianjin explosions, cities try to ensure their own industries are safe

By Phoenix Weekly - Agencies Source:Global Times Published: 2015/11/5 19:03:01 Last Updated: 2015/11/5 23:07:20

Since the Tianjin blasts this August, many chemical plants have started to show increasing concern over their own safety issues and have submitted applications to local governments to move their facilities away from populated areas. The migrations of such chemical plants have been going on gradually for the past few years, but the deadly blasts and accompanying media and political attention have sped up the process. However, these migrations are not easily accomplished due to the difficulty of moving staff, a lack of infrastructure and poor planning.

Large fires light up in the evening sky, as explosions tear through a warehouse in Tianjin, August 13, 2015. Photo: CFP

After the Tianjin blasts killed over 100 people and injured 100's more, an old issue has resurfaced.

A couple of days ago, a conference was held at an industrial zone in the south of Tianjin's disaster-struck Binhai New Area. Security, environment and planning officials from Tianjin attended the conference to discuss guidelines on making the area safe.

Not long ago, only a few companies operated out of the harbor, and construction work on its facilities is still ongoing. But now, it's readying itself for the migration of chemical companies from the city area.

Minister of Industry and Information Technology Miao Wei said at a conference in August that since the explosions, more than 1,000 chemical engineering companies around China have applied to either move their location or make alterations to their production process, and it's estimated that these changes will cost the government and those companies a total of 400 billion yuan ($63 billion).

Old issue renewed

There has long been discussion on where exactly China's many chemical plants should be.

In 2007, an official report from the central government showed that in China, a total of 236 heavy chemical companies pose a severe safety risk and are in need of relocation.

The Tianjin disaster is the latest in a long history of chemical plant disasters in China, many of which have aroused public anger.

An infamous example is China's PX plants. The dangers associated with the these plants first came into public view in 2008, when people in Xiamen, Fujian Province protested against a proposed factory that would have been built near a residential area. In the end, the factory was built in elsewhere.

Even though the authorities have repeatedly declared that PX plants are not dangerous, they couldn't calm the public's safety concerns - and they had reasons to be concerned.

In April 2015, explosions rocked the Tenglong PX plant in Fujian Province, for the second time. The first explosion at this site was in 2013. Even though nobody was injured in either explosion, houses in nearby villages were damaged and there was wide speculation about whether poisonous gas would be released.

Pollution is another reason for factory migrations.

Zhang Xingkai, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, told the Phoenix Weekly that among all the types of pollution common in China, the pollution from heavy industry is the most severe.

"An enterprise can pollute an entire river, a mine can dry an entire body of water and an industrial park can threaten the water safety of millions of people," he said.

While explosions may trigger alarm, the damage caused by pollution is often long-term and hard to detect unless there are visible consequences. In 2014, hundreds of thousands of people in rural China were found to be suffering from arsenic poisoning, many of whom later developed cancer. The poison came from underground water polluted by chemical factories operating near residential areas, which they had used for drinking and watering their crops.

Such incidents have made the public uneasy about having factories near their homes.

In most of these cases it is undeniable that there were management loopholes, safety oversights and often outright corruption involved.

The warehouse where the Tianjin blasts took place, owned by Ruihai Logistics, was only 600 meters from apartment buildings, even though regulations state that dangerous chemicals should be stored more than 1 kilometer from other buildings, enterprises and railways.

According to media reports, many regions have built storage facilities or factories for such chemicals, regardless of their abilities or resources. Some projects have even begun before environmental impact and safety evaluations were completed.

If the Tianjin blasts hadn't happened, many companies would have resisted change, despite governmental pressure. In 2014, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the State Administration of Work Safety launched projects to urge chemical plants to leave densely populated areas, but received little cooperation from local governments and enterprises, according to the Phoenix Weekly.

Following the Tianjin disaster, the over 1,000 applications from companies looking to move seem to indicate a shift has occurred.

A chemical factory is moved to another area due to environmental concerns in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province, December 1, 2011. Photo: CFP

The aftermath of Tianjin

A solution that's surfaced in China's chemical industry is to move such companies into specially designed industrial parks. According to data from the industrial park committee of the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation (CPCIF), at the end of 2014 there were a total of 381 industrial parks in China.

The most clear example is Tianjin. After the August blasts, plans to move factories out of residential areas and into industrial parks were sped up.

"The migration of Tianjin's heavy chemical industries started a few years ago, but because of the lack of infrastructure, staff management and financial problems, these enterprises never actually moved," a factory worker in Tianjin told the China Chemical Industry News.

The new industrial zone in southern Binhai is situated 4.5 kilometers from the city center. Unlike the harbor area that was hit by the blasts, which contains factories and residential communities, the new zone is still under construction and few businesses are operating here.

But things are changing. A week after the blasts, the industrial zone signed contracts with more than 22 companies, who will gradually move into the zone.

When Tianjin's mayor Huang Xingguo was asked at a press conference how the city would avoid such accidents in future, he said that the government is leading large-scale projects to ensure safety in the city, as well as urging the establishment of a new industrial zone.

An insider from a storage company told the Economic Observer that government security officials have been inspecting the Tianjin harbor area.

The storage company didn't have approval to store dangerous chemical products, but had stored and shipped some previously, the insider said.

"But recently, the checks were so strict that we wouldn't dare taking these products," he told the Economic Observer. "A couple of nights ago, a bus drove up to the warehouse, and all of a sudden a group of people ran down and started searching from room to room. Later we found out they were from State Administration of Work Safety". 

Problems follow

Since moving is a systematic procedure, local governments are supposed to play an important part in providing not only equipment and infrastructure for the companies, but also policies and regulations to support them, said Yang Ting, secretary general of the CPCIF committee.

But in reality, many such parks only provide basic electricity, water, transportation, infrastructure and buildings.

The moving process itself costs a lot of money. Lanzhou Petroleum, the biggest petrochemical company in China's western regions, estimated it would cost 60 billion yuan to move their facilities to industrial parks. Many such enterprises call for governmental and policy aid to make the move.

In many such migrations in Hebei Province, the government played a positive role. The Shijiazhuang local government started awarding companies between 2 to 5 million yuan if they finish migrations ahead of the deadline they set.

The government of Wuhan, Hubei Province aids enterprises in building new factory buildings, new equipment and technology. As of now, the 127 heavy industrial companies in the city have all finished their migrations to the suburbs.

Another issue is that some face being moved more than once due to lack of proper planning. Hanghua, a printing ink factory based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, ran into this issue.

In 2007, it moved from the city center to Xiasha, an eastern district of Hangzhou, established new factories and started running. But gradually, as Xiasha started developing and more commercial housing and school zones appeared, the factory was moved again.

Residents told the Hangzhou-based Qianjiang Evening News that the air often smelled weird around where they lived, which they suspected was caused by gas released from factories nearby.

"Whenever I got off work, I saw white smoke coming out of chimneys in these factories, only a couple streets from where I live," said a taxi driver.  

In 2014, the Hanghzou government released a 3-year development plan that decided to move or shut down the industries in Xiasha.

Finally, almost all factories who choose to relocate face the issue of staffing, and the issue is seldom handled well. When companies move, an entire community needs to be resettled. When the Wuhan government moved the 127 companies from its city center, more than 40,000 workers were affected. As they moved to the suburbs, workers' medical welfare and their children's education became difficult to obtain due to administrative complications.

Moving polluting or dangerous industries has drawn criticism from businesses. A director of a company told the Phoenix Weekly that such methods have caused trouble for enterprises and he hopes the government can take more positive steps in future to ensure safety. He said the companies that pose safety hazards or can't keep down pollution should be shut down, instead of all companies being asked to move away. 

"But of course, from the point of view of the government, in order to avoid blame when accidents happen, the best way would be to move the companies all away," he said. 

Phoenix Weekly - Agencies

Newspaper headline: LESSONS FROM THE BLASTS

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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