Tuesday, Apr 25, 2017, 6:56 AM CST – China

Society

Qingdao Explosion

An Avoidable Tragedy

Poor city planning and lax safety regulations turned a minor gas leak into a lethal catastrophe, yet the authorities have taken every step possible to evade blame

Wrecked vehicles lie amid debris from the explosion, November 22 Photo by IC

A bird’s-eye view of Jiaozhou Bay before the explosion Photo by IC

A damaged police booth among the debris Photo by IC

Workers clean up the spill at the pipeline’s main outlet in Jiaozhou Bay, Qingdao, November 24 Photo by Liu Yanmin

At 3 AM on November 22, a minor leak was detected in an oil pipeline running below the crossing of Qinhuangdao Road and Zhaitangjie Street in Huangdao District, Qingdao City, Shandong Province.

Seven hours later, the pipe exploded, killing 62 passersby and injuring 136 more, many of whom sustained horrific burns.

The pipeline was owned and run by State-owned oil giant Sinopec to deliver imported crude oil from a depot in Huangdao to the company’s refinery in the nearby city of Dongying. Following the disaster, one of the worst gas explosions in recent years, Sinopec officials rushed to deny responsibility.

Hazard Zone

An official with Sinopec, who declined to be identified, told our reporter that the pipeline had been “sealed off” shortly after the leak was detected,” but added that “there were surely fumes and residue remaining inside the pipeline.”

The same official also disclosed that Sinopec had notified the district government upon detection of the leak, but refused to elaborate on whether either party took any steps to deal with the leak.

“Pipeline leakages are common,” a pipeline engineer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told NewsChina. “Erosion, aging or [illegal] tapping could all cause leakage. Switching off the valve and fixing the pipeline is a routine procedure.”

With storage capacity for 4,780,300 barrels of crude oil 377,400 barrels of refined oil, the Huangdao depot was constructed in 1973 as one of the first bases for the country’s strategic oil reserves.

Hot on the heels of the crude came related heavy industries, particularly shipyards and refineries. A total of 19 petrochemical enterprises handling hazardous chemicals, seven docks and five depots with a total capacity of 52.8 million barrels became concentrated within an area of 19.2 square kilometers.

However, the Huangdao-Dongying pipeline was far from easy to reach. When the line first opened in 1986, Huangdao was a fishing village, with an unpaved road flanked by fields of crops demarcating the underground course of the oil pipeline.

As soon as the Huangdao depot was inaugurated, however, the Qingdao municipal government declared the city an economic development zone, with office buildings, apartment complexes and hotels springing up in the years that followed. Various utilities, including the water and sewage departments, constructed pipe networks which became entangled with the Sinopec pipeline. Over 30 years, the pipeline began to age, making it vulnerable to leaks, but large stretches were becoming increasingly inaccessible to maintenance engineers as the above-ground sprawl continued to grow.

In August 1989, lightning struck storage tanks at the Huangdao oil depot, causing a massive explosion which destroyed the entire facility, killed 19, injuring 100 and starting a fire which burned for 104 hours and engulfed 10 fire trucks. 251,600 barrels of crude oil went up in smoke.

The dense, exposed placement of oil storage tanks at the depot was identified as a major contributing factor to the devastation. Yet the crude continued to flow. Two decades later, Huangdao had become China’s largest repository of imported oil.

In the wake of the 1989 disaster, Qingdao city made safety a priority at the Huangdao depot. In 2009, the city invested more than 20 million yuan (US$3.3m) in establishing a work safety emergency inspection and response mechanism.

On November 22, however, this mechanism failed its first major test.

Vulnerable

Xing Yuqing, deputy director of the Weifang subsidiary of Sinopec Pipeline Storage & Transportation Company – the body in charge of managing the Huangdao-Dongying pipeline – told reporters that he was notified of the leakage at 5:20 AM, over two hours after it had begun, and that his team was despatched to conduct repairs.

China’s regulations on emergency response to oil and gas leaks state that any case that might “incur further emergency or hazard” should be reported to local emergency services. After the explosion, however, local residents claimed that no police or fire department personnel were seen in the area prior to the accident, and that only Sinopec staff seemed to be overseeing repairs.

Xing recalled that he arrived on the scene at around 8:30 AM, where he found a repair team of 20 engineers working to fix the leak.

When he received a call at 8:40 from the Qingdao environmental protection agency informing him that crude oil was leaking from a sewage outflow near a local beach, Xing left the spot, returning at around 10:10 to find that the repair team had discovered the source of the leak – a hole about the size of two hand-spans on the underside of the pipe. This hole had drained crude oil into the sewage pipe directly beneath, which had caused the leak at the beach. 

Neither Xing, nor his repair team, nor the environmental protection agency workers at the beach, had considered the possibility of an explosion, despite the fact that crude oil vapor was visibly mixing with highly-flammable methane gas from the sewage. With no fire department officials on hand to advise them, Xing instructed his team to continue with their repairs, and he left the scene. The morning rush hour was just peaking, and, as the area had not been sealed off, pedestrians and vehicles were swarming freely around the repair team.

All 20 of the repair team died in the explosion, which hit barely minutes after Xing’s departure. Two blasts, three to five seconds apart, turned the crossroads into a smoking crater. The surrounding roads buckled, and windows shattered in almost all nearby buildings. Around 10 seconds later, flames began to pour from the beachfront sewage outlet.

Tian Hongxing, deputy director of Qingdao fire-fighting division said that the firefighters were only notified of the leak after the explosion.

Negligence

Despite the Huangdao-Dongying pipeline having already been in service for eight years longer than its designated operational lifespan, Sinopec had failed to enact plans to replace it, which were first proposed in 2011. Of 37 pipelines operated by Sinopec in China, one third have already outlived their 30 year life spans.

By the end of 2012, China had a total of 93,000 kilometers of oil and gas pipeline, most than 60 percent of them more than 20 years old. Observers have warned that these aging networks are increasingly vulnerable to leaks and explosions.

Currently, three accidents occur annually for every 1,000 kilometers of Chinese oil and gas pipeline, a rate five times higher than that recorded in the US, and 11 times higher than the European average. Illegal oil tapping and indiscriminate urban construction have contributed to this alarmingly high accident rate.

According to a release by Sinopec’s pipeline management arm, the company’s pipelines were tapped 116 times between January and September 2013. In the same period, damage to pipelines resulting from construction work was reported in 99 separate places. In December 2009, for example, a construction project cut open a newly-built oil pipeline causing a leakage of several hundred tons of crude into Weihe River, which spans Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

In March 2010, a landfill built directly above the Huangdao-Dongying pipeline caught fire, burning holes in the line and causing massive leakage. According to one expert, violations such as landfills and construction projects straddling the pipeline number more than 1,000, posing an even greater risk to public safety than tapping.

A Sinopec official told our reporter that according to national regulations, no building can be constructed within five meters either side of an underground oil pipeline, adding that utilities companies were also prohibited from constructing water, electricity or sewage pipes at a distance of less than 50 centimeters from any oil pipeline.

However, at the scene of the explosion, our reporter saw the warped remains of sewage pipes almost grazing the ruptured pipeline, which had allowed the crude to mix with sewage and flow into the ocean.

Yang Songliang, chief investigator into the explosion and director of the State Administration of Work Safety said November 25 that the entanglement of the oil pipeline and municipal sewage pipes, coupled with poor maintenance and lax inspection schedules, as well as “general ignorance of potential risks,” all contributed to the lethal explosion.

Seven Hours

The explosion was by far the most serious accident in the history of Sinopec.

The first government press conference disclosed the reason behind the explosion – the leakage of light crude into the sewage pipe had created a flammable vapor which ignited upon contact with the air. Officials refused to answer questions about why an evacuation of the area hadn’t been ordered, instructing State media to limit their questions to the relief effort.

Following the explosion, Sinopec did not hold or take part in a single press conference. The government, meanwhile, did not assign responsibility for the catastrophe, withheld further information about the events leading up to the disaster, and refused to comment on the actions of officials in the seven hours prior to the explosion, during which, critics say, the vast majority of casualties could have been prevented by a simple evacuation order.

In a sense, the cause of the explosion, while determined beyond doubt, has had little impact. Those agencies and personnel responsible for the unnecessary loss of life will, apparently, not be held accountable. 62 deaths, an unprecedented tragedy in this small community, are simply an embarrassment to the industrial and political bodies in charge. 

Tags:

Editor's Picks

Sex for Snacks

In cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, a handful of high school…[More]

Worked to Death

A growing number of young Chinese white-collar employees are dying of…[More]

TROTSKY IN CHINA

How Communism’s most controversial theorist finally found an audience – in…[More]

What do Chinese People Want?

“I wish I could do what you do.”…[More]

THE HERMIT HUNTER

A student of Buddhism with a keen interest in China’s…[More]

Prize Fighter

Elevated into the State-approved pantheon of great Chinese writers thanks to…[More]

Dams in Distress

In 1975, over 60 dams collapsed after a rainstorm in Zhumadian city, Henan…[More]

Pathologically Politicized

Practitioners at all levels concur that “messy” is the word that…[More]

HIVE MINDED

China’s indigenous honey bee is under threat from both environmental…[More]

The New Class

China’s growing online education market has attracted the attention of…[More]

Exam Boot Camp

A middle school in Anhui province has earned a reputation for…[More]

From Stall to Mall

Taobao’s shift towards a business-to-consumer model has come at a…[More]

In Whose Court?

The failure of the country’s administrative litigation system has prompted…[More]

Tradition on Trial

After Confucianism made the maintenance of inequality between the sexes fundamental…[More]

Inevitable Brutality

The vicious murder of a doctor in a Zhejiang hospital shows…[More]

Progress or Pornography?

A new sex education primer aimed at elementary school-age children has…[More]

Graft Breeds Graft

The gap between the investigation and prosecution of official corruption cases…[More]

Problem Solved?

Former Politburo member Bo Xilai’s public trial sends mixed messages…[More]

Saving Nature

The concept of animal welfare is yet to be widely acknowledged…[More]

Who Cares?

A new law decrees that all Chinese citizens are now obliged…[More]

BEWILDERING

A 74-year-old man surnamed Xie from Shenyang, Liaoning Province was duped out of 420,000 yuan (US$69,342), despite bank employees’ efforts to…[More]

ANGRY

A policeman pulled his gun to dissuade villagers from stealing oranges…[More]

An Avoidable Tragedy

Poor city planning and lax safety regulations turned a minor gas…[More]

Mean Streets

The chengguan system has become the most visible symptom of a…[More]

How do Chinese people live?

So, the bottom line is that Beijing is an expensive place.…[More]

Back in Action

After stagnating for 10 years, China’s SOE reform has fired up…[More]

THE HANGING DEAD

The hanging coffins of the Bo people, a Chinese ethnic minority…[More]

AMUSING

Wang Xun, an archeologist with Peking University, arranged the bones of…[More]

Trust Trip

Embarking on a three-month car journey around China without handing over…[More]

Fading Lights

For those who grew up under the bright lights of China…[More]