China needs zero tolerance for concealing major accidents

13:16, July 08, 2011      

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The goal of "zero accidents" may be unachievable, but a policy of zero tolerance can certainly be imposed on the concealment or delay of reporting major accidents.

A recent oil spill polluted more than 840 square kilometers of first grade clean water in the Bohai Bay, an area almost the size of a city. The quality of water in the spill area is now at the worst level on China's four-grade pollution scale.

The State Oceanic Administration released an investigative report on the preliminary impact of the oil leak from the Penglai 19-3 oilfield partially owned by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, known as CNOOC, on July 5, 31 days after the oil spill was detected on June 4.

Although CNOOC said it did not conceal the accident, delay of more than one month has reflected its lack of social and environmental responsibility as well as its neglect of the public's right to know and to supervise.

China's law on marine environmental protection specifies that any major accident must be immediately reported to individuals and entities that may be subject to dangers. After the oil spill occurred, the CNOOC hid the truth from the media and the public and deleted Internet posts that exposed the accident. It failed to release information about the degree of pollution of the water or aquatic products as well as the negative effects of the spill on human health even when it was asked to, let alone taking the initiative to report it to local fishermen and the public.

Although we have repeatedly stressed the importance of security, it is very difficult to achieve "zero accidents" in many fields, including oil spills. Therefore, it is particularly important to report accidents in a timely manner. It is understandable if accidents are caused by "complicated reasons" or even an "unexpected" situation. However, concealing accidents is entirely a human factor, which is quite different in nature.

Providing timely information on emergencies and public events has basically become a consensus in recent years. However, some large-scale enterprises are still deficient in information disclosure, such as oil spills in the Dalian Xingang oil port and the pollution incident of the Zijin Mining Group in July 2010. There are very simple interest considerations behind the behavior of concealing accidents. First, the disclosure of accidents will cause the share price decline, which will lead to huge direct losses. Second, the profit of concealing accidents or disguising a major accident as a minor one is very amazing.

"We cannot draw accurate conclusions in a relatively short period of time," said related authorities when explaining the one-month "delay." However, netizens disclosed the accident on microblogs as early as June 21, which aroused great concerns from all walks of life. As a result, rumors are widely reported. It is not conducive to clear the air and may intensify the situation if related management agencies blindly ignore rumors.

Although it takes time to find out causes of incidents and draw conclusions with a professional and prudent attitude, it is more important to disclose facts and publicize investigation progress in a timely manner. If related parties cannot draw conclusions or properly evaluate related risk, they should inform the masses of related investigations, precautionary measures adopted and due public warnings in a timely manner so as to reassure society. Furthermore, disclosing related information in a timely manner is a precondition for forming powerful external supervision as well as investigating and solving problems.

In response to public opinion, many enterprises and even some government organs have adopted "ostrich or sheep flock tactics" over recent years. They buried their heads in the sand like an ostrich in face of public opinion in hopes to appear again over time.

When they had to face public opinions, they just told "young sheep" to make some explanations while keeping "senior sheep" behind the scene. Such tactics are simply irresponsible. In fact, these tactics serve no purpose in the information era and will only eventually imperil immediate public interests, affect long-term development of enterprises and damage invisible assets of government organs. It is worth reflecting on such negative consequences.

By He Yong from People's Daily, and the article is translated by People's Daily Online.

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