China's Industrial Accidents Quietly on the Rise

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China Daily / Reuters

The explosion site at a plastics factory in Nanjing, China, on July 28, 2010

A massive explosion in a southern Chinese city is only the latest in a series of industrial accidents that have hit China in recent weeks. While the country's economic boom has always been dogged by environmental and safety hazards, the frequency of disasters this summer has raised new questions about whether the country can maintain its pace of expansion without doing catastrophic harm to its people and the environment. "These accidents are happening all over China, and the scale ... has become larger and larger," says Wen Bo, a senior fellow with the San Francisco–based NGO Pacific Environment. "You see something you have never seen before, and then you see it again on a larger and larger scale."

The July 28 explosion at a shuttered plastics factory in Nanjing rocked the surrounding neighborhood, killing at least 10 people and injuring another 300, according to state media reports. Investigators suspect the rupture of a propylene pipeline, possibly caused by workers who were dismantling the factory, triggered the midmorning blast. The explosion collapsed nearby structures, shattered windows in the surrounding area and sent columns of acrid black smoke into the air. "I heard a loud bang that lasted for about one second," said a teacher at the Nanjing Technical College of Special Education, which is about a kilometer northwest of the factory. "My first reaction was to run downstairs because I thought it was an earthquake ... As soon as I got outside the building, I saw most of the windows on the first floor were shattered."

On the same day, thousands of barrels containing toxic industrial chemicals were spotted in the Songhua River in northeast China. Floodwaters had swept the containers from a nearby storage depot and into a tributary of the river, Jilin province environmental authorities reported. Some 7,000 barrels are estimated to have been lost in the river, including 3,000 that contained chemicals used in making synthetic rubber, among other applications. China's Ministry of Environmental Protection said Thursday that "no abnormalities" had been detected in a test of the river's waters.

Those disasters were preceded by a July 16 oil spill at the port city of Dalian in northeast China. Some 1,500 tons of crude spilled into the Yellow Sea when two pipelines belonging to the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. exploded at the Xingang oil terminal. The disaster happened after an oil tanker was unloaded, when desulfurizing chemicals were improperly pumped into the pipeline. Since then, hundreds of fishing vessels have been used to aid the cleaning efforts of oil skimmers. Environmental groups criticized the improvised cleanup, saying untrained laborers were exposed to toxic chemicals. "They don't have experience, they don't have protective gear, not even basic gear," says Sze Pang Cheung, campaign director of Greenpeace China. "It's a big health concern." And while the government declared on July 26 that the spill had been cleaned, Sze said that Greenpeace observers in Dalian have noted that there are some areas, including an island that is a sensitive seabird habitat, still tainted by oil.

The national discussion about this and other accidents, however, has been limited. While the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has generated extensive media attention in the U.S., Sze says that Chinese authorities have been able to restrict coverage of the smaller Dalian spill. "I think the big contrast — and again it's something very particular to China — is that starting on the second or third day of the spill the Chinese media were told to leave the site and only allowed to use official Xinhua [news service] stories," he says. After the Nanjing explosion, a Jiangsu provincial official inspecting the scene was taped demanding of a television reporter, "Who do you work for? Who told you to live broadcast this?" The story was aired live on local television and quickly circulated online, although many domestic websites have since removed the clip.

In southeastern Fujian province, the Zijin Mining Group delayed reporting a June 3 leak of waste into a river for more than a week. The spill, which killed 2,000 tons of fish, forced the closure of the gold and copper mining giant's Zijinshan mine. The company was also accused of attempting to bribe Chinese journalists who went to cover the accident.

The efforts of both corporations and the government to restrict coverage of the recent disasters has dampened the public reaction in China. "In the Gulf of Mexico you see all that public anger pointing at BP," says Sze. "In Dalian, you don't see much of that. There are stories of heroic deeds and how the cleaning is successful, but there isn't much discussion of who is responsible and what kind of liability they have."

That raises the possibility that lessons learned from the recent disasters may be slow to take hold. Indeed, it was just five years ago when a chemical-plant explosion caused tons of toxic benzene to be dumped into a river, tainting the water supply for millions of Chinese. The accident happened in Jilin, and the pollutants spilled into the Songhua River, where crews are fishing out barrels of poison today.

With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing