Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:50 AM CST – China


Tianjin Blast

When The Smoke Clears

After the August 12 chemical blast in Tianjin shook the nation, both local and national environmental protection departments rushed to contain its ecological impact. Yet addressing the extent of the devastation and managing the long-term environmental effects remains a huge challenge

Soldiers wearing hazmat suits spray hydrogen peroxide on sodium cyanide residue at the Tianjin blast site, August 20 Photo by IC

A large pool of contaminated water formed at the blast site after the explosion Photo by CFP

A light drizzle was falling in the early afternoon of September 10. Almost a month had passed since a series of devastating blasts had shaken the port of Tianjin on August 12, yet as the rainwater began to collect at the blast site, debris began to smolder, producing a billowing plume of white smoke visible from three to four kilometers away. The rain had caused a chemical reaction with residual sodium cyanide– some 700 tons of which were still scattered around the blast site despite official cleanup efforts.

“When will it end?” posted a Tianjin-based netizen with the microblog account name “oohbravo,” who claimed to have lived in a compound close to the evacuated zone. “Who would dare to move back and continue to live in the vicinity [of the blast]?” Some 6,000 people have evacuated the affected areas, none of whom have been able to return to their homes.

 By September 12, a month after the explosion, the official death toll was set at 173, with over 700 people injured. According to official environmental monitoring data, levels of atmospheric pollutants had fallen back to normal as of August 25.

This was cold comfort to local residents, unnerved by the disaster. “Depending on wind direction, we can smell various strange odors coming from the explosion site every day, even though we’re three to four kilometers away,” An employee surnamed Sun, who works in a State-owned enterprise in the neighborhood around the port of Tianjin, told NewsChina during a September 1 telephone interview. He added that, beyond the unpleasant smell, he hadn’t noticed any other impact on his life.

Emergency Response

The deadly explosion occurred around 11:30 PM on August 12. Within three hours, the Tianjin Environmental Protection Bureau dispatched its first 15-person emergency response unit to the blast site in a motorcade of six vehicles, monitoring air quality downwind of the devastation. By 3 AM on the morning of August 13, high levels of airborne pollutants, including methylbenzene, trichloromethane and epoxyethane, were detected in the atmosphere. The authorities asked survey teams to post new data every hour, while the city assembled all available environmental monitoring personnel from its 15 subordinate districts and placed 17 emergency air quality monitoring stations around the site that collected real-time data.

At the national level, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) sent out a request for help from experts working in the fields of chemical engineering and environmental protection. At 5 AM that same morning, Li Xingchun, a PhD in emergency management of hazardous chemical incidents with the Safety Environment Protection Technology Institute under China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), was summoned to join MEP vice minister Zhai Qing on a tour of inspection in Tianjin. Upon arrival, Li was informed of the high levels of airborne pollutants in the atmosphere, including a small percentage of epoxyethane, which particularly concerned him.

“Epoxyethane itself is a very hazardous substance and at room temperature is a flammable, carcinogenic, mutagenic, irritant gas,” Li told NewsChina in a recent interview. “When airborne, it can easily explode if it comes into contact with static electricity.”

Thankfully, when Li arrived at the government emergency command center in Tianjin, he was assured by the environmental impact assessments provided by Ruihai International Logistics, the private company whose chemical warehouse was the source of the blast, that no epoxyethane had been released in the explosion.

Without knowing what kinds of hazardous chemicals were involved in the explosion, and in what quantities, authorities on August 13 decided to block all drain outlets at the site to avoid contamination of the local water table. “Despite the fact that blocking all drainage systems within the area might have led to a complete operational standstill across the entire industrial zone, we decided to block all pipelines with cement to prevent pollutants running directly into the ocean,” Li told our reporter.

Soon, sodium cyanide, a toxic chemical widely used in gold mining operations, was detected at the site, validating the hasty decision to cut the evacuation zone off from the sea. Representatives of the Hebei Chengxin Company, one of the largest makers of sodium cyanide in Asia, arrived at the MEP command center, claiming that 700 tons of their product were being held by Ruihai prior to export.

Sodium cyanide, even in minuscule quantities, is highly toxic to humans, and as it reacts with water to form hydrogen cyanide gas, which can be fatal if inhaled, an official evacuation order was issued for all those living within three kilometers of the blast site after a change in wind direction on August 15 threatened to blow toxic particles inland.

At a press conference on August 17, Bao Jinling, chief engineer with the Tianjin Environmental Protection Bureau, admitted that surface water at the site had been badly contaminated. He also acknowledged that sodium cyanide had been detected in 17 areas, with areas closest to the blast site showing levels four times higher than what is deemed safe.

An army detachment from Beijing’s chemical, nuclear and biohazard defense unit was dispatched to the site to screen for toxic substances and neutralize sodium cyanide residue with hydrogen peroxide and other chemical solutions. A one-meter-high levee was constructed to enclose the epicenter of the blast site and prevent water leakage. Gallons of toxic water were pumped into tankers and transported to nearby waste and water management companies for treatment or temporary storage. The Tianjin government also built a non-porous, 20,000-square-meter trench for the disposal of contaminated soil.

Altogether more than 300 representatives of various chemical companies in surrounding provinces, including 140 from Hebei Chengxin Company, were summoned to Tianjin to assist with the spill, while nine environmental monitoring stations in neighboring municipalities and provinces, including Beijing, Hebei, Jiangsu, Liaoning, Shandong, Henan, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, were placed on alert for any airborne pollutants. While official information disclosure was slammed in the international media and by the Chinese public as attempting to play down the extent of the disaster, the State-controlled domestic media applauded the “prompt and effective response” of the MEP.

 “After the disaster, the Tianjin environmental protection bureau played its role by promptly and openly releasing bi-hourly air and water quality monitoring data effectively,” Zhao Liang, a member of the Tianjin Binhai Environmental Advisory Service Center, a Tianjin-based environmental NGO, told NewsChina


In recent years, chemical plants have exploded with alarming regularity along China’s coastline. Prior to the Tianjin explosion, the worst such disaster in China’s history, six major explosions or conflagrations at chemical plants have made headlines. In April, NewsChina reported on the extent of devastation caused by an explosion at the Gulei PX (paraxylene) plant in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province. Less than two weeks after the Tianjin explosions, another blast at a chemical plant in Shandong Province killed one person and injured nine more.

In the wake of such accidents, soil, air and water pollution can pose a severe danger to locals’ health. Due to its inability to self-purify, soil, once polluted, can have a massive and long-term effect on the environment that is often invisible until it is too late. However, in practice, soil detoxification or purification has rarely been recommended after such disasters, despite the potential of such efforts to dramatically improve public health prospects. Immediate soil treatment is crucial to prevent irreversible environmental damage.

In recent years, the recognition of China’s soil pollution problem has broadened in domestic science circles, finally appearing on the mainstream political agenda. A revised National Contingency Plan for Environmental Emergencies released by the central government at the end of 2014 clearly outlines emergency measures for dealing with soil pollution. A national action plan for soil pollution prevention and control is scheduled to be released later this year.

“Since more emphasis is placed on human [health] and property loss when chemical incidents happen, the public and government may often ignore the large quantities of pollutants released that might cause immediate and disastrous effects on the ecosystem,” Chen Nengchang, a soil scientist at the Guangdong Institute of Eco-Environmental and Soil Sciences in Guangzhou, told NewsChina, adding that China still lacked an emergency response system for soil pollution.

“Since the Fukushima nuclear leak, Japan’s government developed an ‘emergency soil sampling guideline,’” he continued. “In today’s China, where chemical accidents happen so often, it is necessary to set up a national rapid response team specializing in soil pollution.”

Domestic soil experts including Chen Nengchang and Liu Jianguo from Tsinghua University both emphasized the importance of an immediate investigation on the nature of pollutants, the scale of the disaster and the degree of saturation before drafting a new national-level strategy. However, pinning down such details remains difficult in China.

MEP officials did not respond to NewsChina’s repeated requests for an interview regarding national strategies on soil pollution prevention. A spokesman surnamed Wang told our reporter that “all things are under investigation at this time and nothing can be pinned down.”

In Tianjin, meanwhile, official attention has already turned to repurposing the site of the disaster. On September 4, the municipal government proposed building a 24-hectare “ecological park” on the site. According to an initial plan released online for public consultation, the site would include elementary schools and preschools, as well as a monument to those who lost their lives that would be “given pride of place.” The plans were met with derision from many in the media and from public commentators online, who poured scorn on the idea of building a park on a site they believed was still contaminated with sodium cyanide. The MEP informed our reporter through their spokesperson that the ministry was not consulted about the plans.

Zhao Baojun, chairman of Hebei Yuhuan Environment Technology Co. Ltd., a company specializing in groundwater and soil pollution prevention and remediation, told NewsChina that soil contamination has become a “severe problem haunting China.”

“The extreme complexity and confusion around the chemicals involved in the Tianjin explosion mean that we cannot rely on existing technology. It is difficult to restore polluted soil to a perfectly healthy state, and we still have no nationally recognized standard for soil remediation,” he said.

“From an economic point of view, soil remediation costs a huge amount of money, so it is only when the economic and social benefits are worthwhile that contaminated land will be considered for remediation,” he continued. “In the US, the situation is similar, and a lot of land polluted by heavy manufacturing remains untreated.”

In Zhao’s opinion, the plan to construct an ecological park on the blast site is an “acceptable” solution, and may not be as “spurious” as some have claimed. Cheng Nengchang also agreed that turning the blast site into a park was an “efficient” use of the space.

On the local level, however, public calls for a more thorough cleanup have gradually been drowned out by cries for compensation. “We know that the severe pollution at the explosion site will be around for a long time, and we don’t believe the government’s claims about soil detoxification,” said local resident Mr Sun. “Whatever the official measures taken to treat pollution in the aftermath, I know virtually nobody who wants to return to live [on the site] anymore.”

 A kindergarten and two schools in the vicinity of the blast site, however, opened to receive students on September 1, despite concern from parents, including Sun. “We’ve temporarily arranged for our three-year-old son to study in a preschool downtown, and will see how things go in the future before deciding whether to send him back,” Sun added. 

“What about the questions we really need answered?” Zhao Liang remarked during his interview with NewsChina. “What exact types of toxic chemicals were on the site, and in what quantities? What are the potential dangers to the health of local residents? What’s being done to treat the remaining chemicals in the soil?” 


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