Chinese Officials Give Scant Details on Cause of Tianjin Explosion and Fires

August 14, 2015

Chinese officials provided scant detail on the cause of massive explosions at a hazardous-chemicals warehouse in northern China’s Tianjin port, more than a day after blasts killed at least 50 people and injured more than 700.

Material scattered by the blasts covered a wide area, hindering rescue operations, Zhou Tian, chief of the municipal firefighting bureau, said Friday at a media briefing broadcast on China.com.cn. Shipping and logistics operations at the world’s 10th-largest container port were still delayed and disrupted Friday by the explosions, which occurred late Wednesday night.

“Based on the information I have for now, I can’t give an accurate or detailed account of the types or quantities of dangerous goods in the warehouse,” said Gao Huaiyou, deputy director of the Tianjin Administration of Work Safety.

The incident adds to a list of fatal industrial accidents in China, where local governments have contributed to three decades of breakneck growth amid lax oversight. The six officials at the briefing provided no new information on the chemicals stored at the Tianjin warehouse, the cause of the explosions or who was responsible for them.

Rapid Development
The incident is “a kind of by-product of China’s too-rapid development,” said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Beijing Institute of Technology.

While the cause of the blasts remains unknown, “poor urban planning and lax management of dangerous chemicals also led to this incident,” Hu said.

Executives of Tianjin Dongjiang Port Rui Hai International Logistics Co., the port operator, are in police custody, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

Chinese officials have said only that the explosions were started by a fire.

Injured Hospitalized
So far 701 people have been hospitalized, including 71 with serious injuries, said Wang Jiancun, the Tianjin health bureau chief. One person was rescued alive at 7:05 a.m. Friday, Gong Jiansheng, director of the Tianjin municipal government’s information office, said at the briefing.

More than 1,000 firefighters remain onsite, said Zhou, the firefighting bureau chief. Zhou said he didn’t know whether there was any misconduct by firefighters that might have caused the explosions.

A team of 217 military specialists in nuclear and biochemical materials arrived in the city Thursday, Xinhua reported Thursday.

The blasts shattered windows in buildings for kilometers around. Xinhua reported Thursday afternoon that the blaze had been brought “under initial control,” citing the Ministry of Public Security.

Tianjin is a central part of the government’s push to develop the area around Beijing, 120 kilometers (75 miles) away.

Imports Gateway
The city of more than 15 million people has become a gateway to northern China for shipments of metal ore, coal, automobiles and crude oil. It’s also home to manufacturing operations for companies including Deere & Co., which said it temporarily suspended Tianjin operations.

Volkswagen AG said its imported cars were damaged, while Renault SA said the explosions badly damaged about 1,500 of its cars in storage.

The Tianjin explosions are the latest in a list of industrial accidents in China.

Last year, a fireball ripped through a factory in Kunshan that finishes vehicle rims, killing at least 75 workers and injuring 185. That came after a crude-oil pipeline leak and blast killed 55 people in Qingdao.

“Loose links in public oversight and inadequate punishment are to blame for constant incidents in China,” said Lin Boqiang, a director of the Energy Economics Research Center at Xiamen University. “If a chemical accident like this happened in the U.S., the company responsible would go bankrupt overnight, with overwhelming government fines and civil suits. Yet in China we don’t always hear about punishment for responsible parties.”

Port Operator
Tianjin Port Development Holdings Ltd. said Thursday it’s assessing the damage and doesn’t expect to suffer a material loss. Shares of the company, suspended Thursday, were down 2.5 percent to HK$1.59 [US$0.215] as of 2:06 p.m.

Tianjin Port Co. rose 0.9 percent to 13.85 yuan [US$2.167] as of 2:06 p.m. in Shanghai trading. The port operator said Thursday it was evaluating losses from the blast and that operations were proceeding as normal.

The first explosion occurred at about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, 40 minutes after a caller reported a fire had broken out at a logistics facility holding hazardous chemicals, the Ministry of Public Security said on its microblog.

Video footage showed giant fireballs towering over nearby buildings. The initial blast was followed by a mushroom cloud of smoke, and generated an impact so intense it smashed windows of surrounding buildings and torched hundreds of vehicles stored nearby.

Buildings Leveled
Makeshift building structures were leveled and stacks of shipping containers collapsed on vehicles parked nearby, according to pictures that the official People’s Daily posted on its Weibo account.

Freight companies including Auckland, New Zealand-based Mainfreight Ltd. and Japan’s Sankyu Inc. said the blast would cause delays or impact their businesses. Ships at the port’s North wharf — other than those carrying crude oil or hazardous products — could enter and exit normally, according to a post from the official microblog of the Tianjin Maritime Safety Administration at 10:44 a.m. Friday.

BHP Billiton Ltd. said its iron ore shipments were disrupted by the explosions, although discharging berths weren’t damaged.

–With assistance from Keith Zhai and Xin Zhou in Beijing, Jing Yang in Shanghai and Kyunghee Park in Singapore.

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