24-hour checks for pollutants in Tianjin

An officer checking for combustible materials at the Tianjin blast site on Thursday. The disaster on Aug 12 has left 89 firefighters, nine policemen and 48 others dead, and the death toll is expected to rise.
An officer checking for combustible materials at the Tianjin blast site on Thursday. The disaster on Aug 12 has left 89 firefighters, nine policemen and 48 others dead, and the death toll is expected to rise.PHOTO: XINHUA

Environment Minister takes action to ensure public safety after chemical blasts

BEIJING • China's Environment Ministry has put in place a 24-hour monitoring system for pollutants at a port that was hit by explosions, and says it plans to report accurate and timely data to the public.

The blasts at a warehouse storing chemicals in the port city of Tianjin, not far from Beijing, killed at least 146 people and stirred public anger over persistently poor work safety standards and possible health risks arising from the disaster.

Speaking at a meeting yesterday, Environment Minister Chen Jining said his ministry will not let up on environmental monitoring, with 24-hour checks for air, soil and water pollution. The ministry will "release monitoring data to the public in a timely manner and accurately", the official China Environment News quoted him as saying.

He added that the ministry will "accurately respond to focus points and hot topics for society, ensure people's right to know about environmental information".

China has a poor reputation for transparency, especially when it comes to embarrassing incidents like disasters which could reflect badly on the ability of the ruling Communist Party to ensure public safety. A new environmental protection law, effective from Jan 1, grants the public the right of access to environmental information and stipulates that officials directly responsible for illegal behaviour will be fired.

China has formally detained a dozen people over the explosions and accused 11 officials and port executives of dereliction of duty or abuse of power. The party has also sacked the head of the work safety regulator, a former vice-mayor of Tianjin, for suspected corruption, but without making an explicit link to the chemical blasts on Aug 12.

The two blasts ripped through a warehouse where large amounts of toxic chemicals, including some 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, were stored.

Sodium cyanide is a white powder or crystal which can give off lethal hydrogen cyanide gas.

The disaster left 89 firefighters, nine policemen and 48 others dead, and the death toll is expected to rise. Twenty-seven people, including 15 firefighters and two policemen, are still missing.

No excessive levels of pollutants have been found in the air outside the exclusion zone, an area marked by a 3km radius from the blast site. But high levels of cyanide were detected in water samples from places inside the exclusion zone, with the worst about 27 times the level officially regarded as safe, said state news agency Xinhua. "Safe" levels of cyanide were found in four out of six seawater monitoring locations.

Less than two weeks after the Tianjin blasts, an explosion took place at a chemical plant in east China's Shandong province. One person died and nine people were injured.

REUTERS, XINHUA, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2015, with the headline '24-hour checks for pollutants in Tianjin'. Print Edition | Subscribe