Guangdong chemical factory blaze comes amid nuclear safety checks

As China’s nuclear safety officials began nationwide checks of nuclear facilities across the country in the wake of massive chemical explosions in the northern city of Tianjin that left more than 160 dead, residents of Huizhou city in the southern province of Guangdong reported yet another blaze at a chemical plant near their homes.

The fire ripped through the Bolin Technology Chemical Co. paint manufacturing facility in Huizhou’s Boluo county at around 8:00 p.m. local time on Tuesday, local media reported.

Several fire engines and around 60 rescue workers were called to the scene, and took around three hours to extinguish the flames, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper reported.

The blaze pumped thick smoke into the sky, and residents some three kilometers (1.9 miles) away said the fire was clearly visible from their homes.

“There was a fire, that was pretty big and serious,” a Boluo county resident surnamed Lin said. “We have had similar accidents in this township in the past, but they have been quite small.”

“This was pretty big. I heard nobody died or was injured, but who knows,” Lin said. “We are all very worried, because this is a chemical factory.”

An official who answered the phone at the Boluo county police department rescue services team confirmed the fire services had been called to the scene.

“Rescue workers from every district in Boluo county have joined forces to carry out firefighting and rescue work,” the official said.

A Boluo county resident surnamed He said he lives across the river from the factory.

“I would only be worried if this had actually happened right next door to me,” He said. “If it’s further away, like in Tianjin, I don’t really have any reaction to these accidents.”

“It’s just like a piece of news you watch on TV.”

Tianjin blasts

At least 160 people died on Aug. 12 when the explosions ripped through a hazardous chemicals warehouse in the port area of Tianjin, destroying residential buildings near the epicenter and shattering glass up to five kilometers (three miles) away, according to official media reports.

Thirteen people are still missing, hundreds remain in hospital, and the authorities are still struggling to clean up local pollution after toxic chemicals including sodium cyanide were pumped into the atmosphere by the fire and subsequent blasts, which affected some 17,000 households.

Just days later, at least nine people were injured after a blast ripped through a chemical plant in Zibo city, in the eastern province of Shandong, starting a fire at the Shandong Runxing Chemical Technology Co.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party ordered nationwide safety checks at all hazardous materials facilities in the wake of the Tianjin disaster, and the nuclear inspections appear to be part of that operation.

The nuclear inspections continue until November and will include any facilities that use or make nuclear equipment and technology, equipment used at uranium mines, and nuclear radiation risks, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said in a statement on its website.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Beijing promised to implement the latest safety standards in all new nuclear projects, with a brand new reactor in the eastern province of Zhejiang repeatedly delayed as a result of the tougher safety checks.

Investigation under way

Back in Guangdong, an official who answered the phone at the provincial government offices on Wednesday said the authorities had yet to investigate the causes of the fire in Boluo county.

“It’s not going to happen that quickly,” the official said. “It only happened yesterday. How could we have completed our investigation and determined the reason in that time?”

“All of our leaders have gone down there to investigate, but they only went there today,” he said.

He said the province had already undergone a series of safety checks in the wake of the Tianjin blasts.

“Ever since the big blasts [in Tianjin], we have been investigating,” the official said. “There will be some improvements in the safety checks on these places.”

But Boluo county resident Lin said facilities like the paint factory never engaged in rehearsals for disaster scenarios.

“If something like [Tianjin] happened here, I wouldn’t know what to do to save myself,” Lin said.

“Of course we would like the government to deal with it; as citizens we just want to get on with our lives and our work, without worrying about different escape methods, or about which chemical and hazardous materials facilities are going to have accidents,” he said.

“The rescue and escape plans for these facilities are all different, and there’s no way we can learn them all.”

China’s appalling industrial safety record has prompted widespread public anger, but official control of traditional and social media means there are few channels for alternative sources of information.

The government’s propaganda department issued strict rules governing reporting of the Tianjin disaster, ordering state-run media to stick to officially approved news stories, deleting tweets, and shuttering social media accounts deemed to be “spreading rumors” about the explosions.

Information about the longer-term threats to human health of industrial disasters are also often suppressed.

Shandong chemical factory

Residents of the eastern province of Shandong on Wednesday told RFA their village’s groundwater had been poisoned, blaming pollution from a nearby chemical factory.

Residents near the Lushan Industrial Park in Shandong’s Yishui county cited anecdotal evidence that suggests a higher-than-normal incidence of different types of cancer in nearby villages.

“All of that [waste] water has got underground now, and the pollution here is very serious,” a resident of nearby Anzigou village surnamed Liu told RFA.

“Of course we have a lot [of cancer] here, but I have no way to compile the figures,” she said. “Several people die every year [of cancer] in a single village.”

“A guy died recently in Bingfangling village. His name was Huang Yukuang. He had cancer,” Liu said.

Villagers said many of the factories responsible for polluting manufacture ceramic tiles, others tires for vehicles, and that local people now drink only bottled water.

But an official who answered the phone at the environmental protection bureau in the local government declined to comment.

“I hadn’t heard about this. Who told you this?” the official said. “I don’t really know. We do propaganda work here.”

 Copyright © 1998-2014, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036. 

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