Toxic explosions at Tianjin, could happen again

From ToxicLeaks

August 12th is an auspicious date around the world, for a number of varied and distinct reasons. In Thailand, it is the date of Mother's Day and the Queen's birthday. In the UK, the “Glorious 12th” is an age old date which marks the start of Grouse hunting season. It is also, in an entry far happier than the last, “World Elephant Day”. However, since the year 2015, the date will always be synonymous with the chemical explosion at Rui Hai Logistics' warehouse in Tianjin in China.

The explosion was not only devastating, but entirely shocking. Such was the power of the first blast that the explosion registered a 2.3 reading on seismographs. A second explosion was far more powerful and far more destructive. Shooting enormous fireballs hundreds of feet into the air buildings were shattered beyond repair as far as 2 miles away from the epicenter of the blast, 8,000 new cars awaiting export/import were turned to blackened wrecks and around a thousand people were injured or killed – including those fire fighters who tried to subdue the initial fire by dousing the area with water. Of course the fire fighters, as was the case with the thousands of resident who lived nearby, had no idea they were dealing with a chemical fire and their actions, consequently, literally added fuel to the fire. Not that the Tianjin fire department was in any way to blame, having no suspicion that thousands of tons of hazardous substances were being stored upon the doorstep of a major residential area. If fact, as the travesty unfolded, it became apparent how surreptitiously operations from this toxic hoard had been undertaken. It also became apparent, as the nature of the hazardous substances was determined, that the consequences for the local ecosystem could be catastrophic.

In the end, it took the best part of a week following the explosion before local officials deigned to share with the general public the information that 700 tonnes of extremely toxic sodium cyanide had degraded into the environment. Such was the ferocity of the blast that the chemicals had been dispersed in manner that potentially, if not certainly, created a distribution arc that cover air, water and earth. However, it was the high levels of sodium cyanide in water samples that caused the most concern, due to its greater potential to enter and damage the environment and cause human casualties. So dangerous is this particular toxin, that only a small intake is needed to cause a fatality. Hence the concerns when water testing found that the sodium cyanide concentrations were nearly 400 times higher than the permissible level. Of course, the Chinese PR damage limitation brigade came out in force after having finally admitted the existence of this toxin – which was by no means the only hazardous substance stored there, and notable in its potential for harm only by its sheer volume. Official sources were swift to claim victory in the battle to contain the polluted water, and in a matter of days were stating that it had been safely contained within the blast site; both air and water quality displaying perfectly normal limits in the surrounding residential areas. Another day or two passed and the claims were extended to the blast site itself stating that the cleanup operation was fully underway and that a large percentage of the extant sodium cyanide residue had been removed. However, residents were skeptical, and especially so when thousands of dead fish turned up in a stretch of the Haihe river that authorities claimed was free of associated pollutants. When official investigations found no evidence of sodium cyanide in the water where the fish had died, coincidence was not a word that the now cynical residents of Tianjin wanted to hear.

The concerns of angered inhabitants living nearby were well justified when looking at the potential ill effects of sodium cyanide upon both human health and the environment. It is, after all, a highly toxic substance which is harmful to most living organisms. The goods news on one hand is that, similar to other related toxins, sodium cyanide has high reactivity with the environment when exposed in the manner in which it was at Tianjin. Essentially, through a number of different processes ranging from biodegradation to hydrolysis, it may be neutralized or converted to different substances, although some of these substances themselves may be harmful and the process sometimes does not occur at all where the concentrations are too high. Irrespective of this, however, sodium cyanide has a far more potent and long-lasting effect upon water and water-life. Fish are particularly sensitive, and very low levels can be lethal. Even minute traces, that would be negligible to other life forms, can have adverse effects upon the respiratory system and upon breeding patterns and health. Additionally, although freshwater flora has a higher tolerance than fish and other native organisms, stronger plant forms may thrive at the expense of the weaker, affecting feeding patterns and interrupting the natural order of river life. Potentially, this could lead to the extinction of certain species living within that locale. Unfortunately, with Chinese officials so unwilling to admit to the extent of the potential environmental damage caused by sodium cyanide, only time will tell of the impact upon local waterways of the Tianjin explosion.

And therein lies the problem.

A complete lack of transparency throughout the Tianjin calamity has been responsible for the severity of the consequences – both the unwillingness of the government to admit to the potential and consequent environmental issues, and the insidious collusion between local authorities and the directors of logistics company, Rui Hai, to ensure that their warehouse in the Binhai new district remained under the radar of the relevant regulations. No one living in the immediate vicinity of the warehouse had even the remotest suspicion that they were spending their evenings sat atop a ticking time bomb. Indeed, the possibility of encountering the two ingredients necessary to create the blast, the atmospheric heat within the warehouse which created the initial reaction and the water consequently applied by the fire services which exacerbated it, was far from being remote. Especially as the fire service had no awareness of what they were dealing with when they arrived to extinguish the first flames. Add to that the fact that the chemicals were being stored in an unsafe manner, as the fact they reacted to atmospheric heat would suggest, and the recipe for disaster was one that was always certain to occur.

There are regulations in China that control the handling of hazardous items, much as anywhere else, but early investigations swiftly began to show the influence of bribery, collusion, the creation of false information and a cynically intentional mismanagement of operations in order to maximize profit. Not only were hazardous materials stored unsafely, not only were amounts stored far in excess of the limits that any license would allow, not only were police and customs officials bribed to ensure that the business was allowed to persist in its illegal operations, but it also ran for a significant period without the licenses that would allow the handling of toxic substances. And yet, the extreme issues apparent in the fatally cavalier execution of Rui Hai's operations are only a small part of the bigger picture. In fact, up and down the length and breadth of China, local officials are turning a blind eye to such potentially lethal situations. Investigations by independent organizations following the Tianjin disaster showed that finding information on hazardous chemical companies in China was far more difficult than ought to be the case. Indeed, only six provinces currently make chemical companies’ information available to the public, and even here the information supplied was inadequate and obscured the true nature of any associated operations. However, the most shocking discovery made, even in those provinces where chemical companies were forced to reveal the nature of their business, was that they were not under any obligation to reveal exactly where the chemical storage plants themselves were located.

Today, the question remains whether China has learned any lessons at all over the Tianjin disaster. The rhetoric has been forthcoming, and big sounds made in abundance about forcing chemical companies to face up to their responsibilities regarding health and safety and environmental conservation. The major problem, however, is the number of governmental organizations complicit in the Tianjin explosions, from the police and customs right through to city planners and environmental health. With the nation's reputation for a willingness to accept “tea money”, as they prefer to term bribery, there is an obvious need for far stricter regulation to be implemented, with a national database available to those at the top of the government pecking order, as well as the emergency services, which might help undermine the corruption inherent in the system. It is clear that Tianjin is far from being an isolated case, and that there are, potentially, thousands of other warehouses like that of Rui Hai's which are ready to erupt into flames any day. Although the long term effects upon river life and other aspects of the ecosystem by the explosions are yet to make themselves understood, the Chinese government itself needs to stop shying away from the issue and take control of an issue that is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon – and before the environmental repercussions are too great to reverse.