Army officer says hundreds of tonnes of cyanide stored at Tianjin blast site as Premier Li visits

A fireman wearing a gas mask searches the area of a huge explosion that rocked the port city of Tianjin, China, on Aug 15, 2015.
A fireman wearing a gas mask searches the area of a huge explosion that rocked the port city of Tianjin, China, on Aug 15, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

TIANJIN, China (AFP) - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in the port city of Tianjin yesterday to offer his condolences as China began a probe into the explosions at a development zone here that killed 112 people.

Separately, a senior military officer has said that hundreds of tonnes of highly poisonous cyanide were being stored at the warehouse where the blasts occurred.

Premier Li, dressed in a white shirt and without a mask, gave a rare doorstop interview to local media in which he said firefighters, regardless of whether they were hired externally or members of the firefighting forces, would be treated equally. 

The Supreme People’s Procuratorate said yesterday that it would look into possible illegal acts, such as the abuse of power or the dereliction of duty, and deal with those acts which may constitute crimes, according to the official Xinhua news agency. 

Meanwhile, comments by General Shi Luze, chief of the general staff of the Beijing military region, were the first official confirmation of the presence of the chemical at the hazardous goods storage facility at the centre of the blast. 

The disaster has raised fears of toxic contamination. Residents and victims’ families have hit out at the authorities for what they said was an information blackout, as China suspended or shut down dozens of websites for spreading “rumours”.

Nearly 100 people remain missing, including 85 firefighters, though officials warned that some of them could be among the 88 unidentified corpses found so far. 

More than 700 people have also been hospitalised as a result of last Wednesday’s blasts, which triggered a huge fireball and a blaze that emergency workers have struggled to put out since then, with fresh explosions last Saturday. 

General Shi told a news conference that cyanide had been identified at two locations in the blast zone. “The volume was about several hundreds of tonnes, according to preliminary estimates,” he said. 

Only safe levels of the harmful gas were detected near the blast site, he was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

A military team of 217 chemical and nuclear experts was deployed early on, and earlier Chinese reports said that 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide was at the site. 

Officials have called in experts from producers of the material – exposure to which the US Centres for Disease Control says can be “rapidly fatal” – to help handle it, and the neutralising agent hydrogen peroxide has been used. 

The authorities have repeatedly sought to reassure the public, insisting that the air in Tianjin remains safe to breathe. 

Xinhua reported late last Saturday that cyanide density in waste water was 10.9 times the standard on the day following the explosions. The figure has since fallen but was still more than twice the normal limit. 

Environmental group Greenpeace said yesterday it had tested surface water for cyanide at four locations in the city and not detected high levels of the chemical. 

"These results show that local water supplies are not currently severely contaminated with cyanide," Greenpeace said, but reiterated its call for comprehensive tests on the air and water and publication of the results. 

Last Saturday, a 3km radius from the site of the blasts was evacuated, the state-run media reported. 

Officials said later that the reports were inaccurate, but vehicles were turned back at barriers. 

Tianjin residents, relatives of the victims and online commentators have slammed the local authorities for a lack of transparency and, at one point, tried to storm a news conference last Saturday.