Irrational layouts of chemical factories blamed for life-threatening accidents in China

10:03, August 01, 2010      

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Soldiers and emergency workers are still struggling to retrieve the thousands of chemical-filled barrels that were swept into a major river by rain-triggered floods in northeast China's Jilin Province.

Some 3,000 chemical-filled barrels and 4,000 empty ones fell into the Songhua River Wednesday morning after floods swamped the warehouses of two chemical companies in Jilin City, Jilin Province.

The accident happened on the same day when Zhou Shengxian, minister of environmental protection, called for more steps to tackle pollution in the Songhua River while addressing a meeting on water pollution control.

Though the river is facing the risk of being contaminated by chemicals, experts have concluded that the root cause of the accident is the irrational layout of chemical factories.


More than 5,000 of the 7,000 chemical barrels had been recovered as of 7 p.m. Saturday, local authorities said.

Additionally, more than 10,000 soldiers and civilians have been stationed at 16 points in Jilin's Songyuan City, where the Songhua River enters Zhaoyuan City in the Heilongjiang Province; their task is to try and recover all the remaining barrels within the territory of Jilin Province.

However, as the Fengman Dam, located on the upper reaches of the Songhua River, opened its floodgates Friday afternoon to discharge flood waters, the unrecovered barrels are now flowing faster down the river and it has become more difficult to retrieve them, said Professor Liu Guoliang, a chemist who is leading Heilongjiang's retrieval team.

Experts are concerned that the chemical-filled barrels might explode if they slam into a dam at high speed, although the dams may be helpful in intercepting the barrels.

"The blue barrels are like time bombs. We don't know when any of them might explode," said Chen Yanpeng, a resident of Jilin's Yushu City, who has participated in the salvage work.

"In addition to retrieving the barrels, people should also consider why this has happened," Cheng said.


The two chemical companies the barrels were swept from are located at an economic and technical development zone of Jilin's Yongji County in the upper reaches of the Songhua River. The two firms are among the thousands of chemical factories that have been built in the upper reaches of rivers or surrounded by residential areas.

"Chemical factories located near waters or populated regions are quite dangerous. They will severely damage the ecology if any accident occurs," said Zheng Husheng, a researcher at Jilin Academy of Social Studies.

Figures released in 2006 indicate that 81 percent of more than 7,000 chemical and petroleum industry sites have been built near rivers or populated areas.

Along the Songhua River alone there are 157 factories that discharge heavy metals or organic pollutants such as mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, according to the Water Pollution Control Plan of Songhua River (2006-2010) approved by the central government in 2006.

The chemical barrel case is not the first such accident for the Songhua River.

In November, 2005, an explosion at a chemical factory in Jilin Province contaminated the waters of the Songhua River, leaving 3.7 million residents in the lower reaches of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province, without drinking water for four days.

Also, in August 2006 a chemical company illegally dumped chemicals into a tributary of the Songhua River, threatening the safety of drinking water for numerous local residents.

Although cities like Harbin and Jiamusi have turned to other water sources to avoid similar dangers, the "time bombs" are still there, waiting to explode sometime.

"With the rapid development of China's economy, China will be threatened by the environmental risks because of irrational layouts for a long time," Wang Yuqing, former deputy director of the State Environment Protection Administration, predicted in 2005.


"The chemical factories along the river should be relocated," said Yin Jun, a well-known sewage treatment expert in China.

"The layout of a project should be decided by the environmental capacity of the location, and, no project should be established no matter how much profit it can make and how many jobs it can bring to the place if it is dangerous," Yin said.

Over-capacity has caused environmental pollution as well as the risks of chemical accidents, he said.

Environmental experts suggest that chemical projects should not be built near bodies of water, but in China the layout plans are not approved or assessed by environmental authorities.

"Most of the environmental evaluation of business projects are conducted by environmental assessment companies or study institutions, which has become a mere formality," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

"Social supervision should be added apart from the government efforts," said Ma.

"Government control is not enough; some companies just paid some small amount of penalties to close the deal once their wrongdoings were disclosed," a government staff in charge of environment protection in Jilin Province said, on condition of anonymity.

Also, government supervision remains difficult to be implemented at the grass-roots level, he said.

(Xinhua reporters Liu Jingyang, Qi Haishan, Zhou Liquan, Jiang Mingming, Fan Yingchun, Wang Haiyang, Guan Jiantao also contributed to the story)

Source: Xinhua


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