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Tianjin Explosion Raises Concerns About China's Storage Centers

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Chinese emergency workers observe the area of the explosion in the northeastern port city of Tianjin.
Chinese emergency workers observe the area of the explosion in the northeastern port city of Tianjin.

The deadly explosions in China's northern port city of Tianjin last week raised questions about how China regulates hazardous materials. A fire and a mixture of volatile chemicals are believed to be the cause of the explosion.

The accident raises concerns about violations of safety standards. These include possible problems with rules on the testing, transporting and storing of dangerous chemicals.

One person in the industry said, "There are strict rules for each kind of hazardous chemical depending on its risk factor. Some have to be kept at specific temperatures and away from moisture. Some even underground."

One hazardous material, sodium cyanide, was present in the area of the explosion. Only 10 tons of the material can be stored in one place at a time. And officials have confirmed that 700 tons of sodium cyanide were stored at the site of the explosion. However, they have said little about how that violates standards.

At daily press conferences, officials have been hesitant to blame. They have been slow to answer questions about the chemical industry's regulations. They have been slow to answer repeated questions such as how the company was permitted to operate within one kilometer of homes, which violates national laws.

They say that an investigation into the disaster is underway. And the State Council has established a task force to carry out the investigation.

Experts question enforcement of rules

Experts say tight regulations have been in place since 2009 at the complex, called the Binhai New Area Tianjin, where the explosion happened. But they doubt the regulations were enforced carefully.

State media reported on Tuesday the warehouse operator, Ruihai International, violated several safety rules at the site of the explosion.

In 2012, Ruihai changed a normal warehouse and logistics center into a special storage center for dangerous chemicals. The company did not receive approval to handle dangerous chemical goods until April of 2014 and that approval expired six months later in October. From October of last year until June of 2015, Ruihai did not have a proper license to run a hazardous chemicals business.

Ivan Su is a logistics professor. He says the fact that the warehouse was turned into a storage area for dangerous chemicals shows that influence was used to get government approval.

On Wednesday, officials confirmed that one of the important shareholders of the company was the son of a former police chief in Tianjin.

Public concerns grow over storage centers near homes

Public concern is growing after the explosion. There is concern about the spread of pollution in the water and air. There also are worries about similar warehouses and their distance from places where people live.

In recent years, China's public increasingly has voiced these concerns. And many do not want the warehouses near their homes.

The government is planning to turn Tianjin, Hebei province and the capital of Beijing into mega-metropolis with a population of more than 110 million people.

A professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Ding Xueliang, said the accident in Tianjin is likely to bring even more attention to warehouses in China.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Bill Ide and Joyce Huang reported this story from Beijing. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Words in This Story

regulate -v. to make rules or laws that control something (such as an industry)

hazardous -adj. involving risk or danger

volatile -adj. likely to change in a sudden or extreme way

standards -n. a level of quality that is considered acceptable or desirable

hesitant -adj. slow to act because of uncertainty

analysts -n. a person who studies or analyzes something

logistics -n. the field of things that must be done to plan and organize a complicated activity

mega-metropolis -n. a huge urban center

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