Environment & energy, Government and governance | East Asia

29 October 2015

The recent explosions in dangerous chemicals warehouses in China highlight an alarming regulatory system, compounded by a refusal to share information with the public, writes Ada Kong

On the night of 12 October, exactly two months after the huge explosion in Tianjin shocked China, another warehouse storing dangerous chemicals in the city flared up. Luckily, this time there were no casualties.

The Tianjin explosion is not an isolated case, rather it is just one of many examples of the malfunctioning dangerous chemicals regulatory system in China. Between 2011 and 2013, there were 569 incidents, caused by the mishandling of dangerous chemicals. In the past two months alone, there have been at least three cases, which caused injuries.

The Tianjin incident on 12 August killed 173 people, including 104 firefighters. It was later discovered that as much as 3,000 tonnes of hazardous chemicals were stored at the site, a dangerous chemical warehouse, on the night of the explosion – including 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, which is 10 times the regulated storage limit. Even more disturbing is that this information only came to light after days of probing. Until then, no one was sure what kinds of chemicals, and how much of them, were stored there. The absence of information is as dangerous as the chemicals itself, but there is a chemical information black hole in China.

According to the law, the suppliers and manufacturers of dangerous chemicals have to attach the material safety data sheets (MSDS) to the chemical products. These documents contain information on the potential hazards, as well as safety instructions, to ensure the parties involved in the various stages of hazardous chemicals manipulation know what they are dealing with.

However, in reality this has never been well practiced by the industry, to the extent that, after the Tianjin catastrophe, industry insiders told journalists that the majority of the chemical owners use fake MSDS or just obtain a copy from the Internet.

Without this crucial document, logistics companies, storage companies, factories using the chemicals and local governments don’t have accurate, useful information about the substances that they are handling. In the Tianjin incident, the firefighters were not correctly informed about the properties of the chemicals, and this missing information cost them their lives.

In addition, the public is kept in the dark. In the Tianjin case, the safety assessment report was another critical piece of information that was not disseminated. This is a prerequisite document that certifies the safety measures taken by the dangerous chemicals storage and handling facilities. The document not only indicates the kinds and quantity of chemicals the facility can safely handle, it also provides assessment on the risks to the surrounding environment, including a stipulated safety distance from residential areas.

However, the State Administration of Work Safety, the main department that regulates dangerous chemicals operations, never intends to guarantee the public’s access to the safety assessment reports.  This is in contrast to the environmental impact assessment which is mandatory for the Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) to disclose to the public.

The safety assessment report regarding the warehouse in Tianjin has never been released, despite intense pressure from the media. Residents living as close as 600 metres from the site had no idea that highly toxic chemicals were in their neighbourhood.

After the Bhopal tragedy in India in the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States enacted the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program, to ensure the public’s right to know about all substances being used, produced and discharged. In 2012, the MEP in China introduced a similar program; however it misses the key element – information disclosure. The inventory only needs to be reported to the MEP and no one knows whether it is well enforced.

The bang in Tianjin was so loud people woke up and ran for their lives in the dark at midnight.  But the echoes of this explosion served to alarm Chinese society, and throw the spotlight on the dangerous practices in the country’s chemicals regulatory system.

China is the world’s largest dangerous chemicals producer. The government desperately needs to reform and redraft its policies and regulations to keep up with the rampant expansion of the industry. The very first step is to make information available and accessible. Only under the light of public scrutiny we can see and evaluate the threat; and only with this information can we take action to prevent the next disaster from happening.

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