Industrial explosions in China showcase the true cost of incorrect chemical storage

Written by: David Smith | Published:

The industrial explosion at a pesticide plant in eastern China in March was a harrowing message to the worldwide hazardous waste industry on the importance of correct chemical storage.

The blast, which occurred on 21 March in Yancheng, north of Shanghai, was the latest in a series of industrial accidents in the region and was so powerful the China Earthquake Administration compared it to a magnitude 2.2 earthquake.

Local firefighters battled through the night to save people within the blast radius and to help reduce toxic substances spreading into the air and water.

The company in question, based at Chenjiagang Chemical Industry Park, produces more than 30 organic chemical compounds, some of which are highly flammable and need to be monitored carefully and correctly.

Learning from past mistakes

This incident follows a duo of explosions involving chemicals, which took place in 2015 at a container storage station at the Port of Tianjin. This begs the question of whether the Chinese authorities are doing enough to learn from past mistakes and make sure that such horrific incidents are not repeated.

The explosion at Tianjin, one of the world’s busiest ports located close to the capital, Beijing, was big enough to be seen by satellites and register on earthquake sensors.

In addition to the blasts causing a tragically high death toll, the 700 tonnes of highly toxic sodium cyanide which was stored at the site – 70 times the legal limit - seriously polluted the surrounding areas.

What measures were actually taken from this incident in 2015 and why wasn’t it enough to prevent a repeat chemical explosion some four years later?

It is vital to understand the hazards of individual chemicals being handled and stored, as well as the potential consequences of these chemicals if they were to interact with each other.

This includes identifying chemicals that are water-reactive and determining which gases may be generated from such an interaction. Periodic reviews of chemical storage policies should then detail segregation and separation of potentially flammable material.

It is also imperative to review emergency response plans for chemical storage facilities. One critical point is to verify that firefighters are immediately provided with up-to-date information regarding chemicals that are in the facility, and where large quantities of these chemicals are located. If any chemicals are water-reactive, this is essential information for the firefighters to understand.

Although there were pledges to tighten safety, chemical plants in the region continue to be plagued by disasters, resulting in a worrying trend.

The reaction to the incident

Since the explosion in March, rescue operations for potential missing workers are understandably ongoing, however, pollution containment has also been stepped up with dangerous chemicals being taken to new sites to prevent secondary pollution amid reports of leaks.

Looking further into the future, measures need to be taken to make sure similar, alarming incidents do not continue to happen.

Though authorities may appear responsive, it is essential to implement preventative measures when working with hazardous materials, ensuring all chemicals are handled and stored correctly at all times.

A lesson for everyone

The Chinese firm responsible for the explosion has been penalised six times in the past for infractions of pollution and waste management laws. Now is the time for the firm to recognise their faults and dutifully correct them to prevent any further harm to members of the public.

Needless fatalities and injuries can only be avoided by a radical change in culture, but a clear and strict transformation is required for this to come to fruition.

The extreme dangers of improper chemical storage are far too often overlooked. The human and environmental toll, not to mention the financial costs of both the 2015 and 2019 incidents could have been prevented through effective training and implementation of proper chemical storage procedures.

Ultimately, this devastating explosion showcases the true dangers of cutting corners when it comes to managing chemicals. Without stringent health and safety policies and the right management procedures in place, chemicals can become a ticking time bomb.

David Smith is group compliance manager of Chloros Environmental.

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