Hints of Disaster Lie Hidden in a Tianjin Environmental Report

By Zheng Yi
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Commentator Zheng Yi in an undated photo.
Commentator Zheng Yi in an undated photo.

The Tianjin explosions have dominated the headlines, and have had a big impact on countless Chinese people.

One piece of good news has come out of the tragedy: fire and safety experts at the scene say they have located the 700 tons of sodium cyanide [stored at the plant]. What's more, if we look at the current figures, it seems as if there hasn't yet been a major leak of sodium cyanide.

If this information is correct, then Tianjin has escaped an environmental catastrophe of even greater magnitude [than the explosions themselves.]

There is now a public hue and cry for those responsible, and environmental protection departments won't be able to hide from this.

People are asking how a hazardous goods warehouse came to be surrounded by more than 20 apartment buildings, with the three apartment complexes closest to the blast site inhabited by 5,000 people.

How could such a deadly dangerous goods warehouse not be classed as an illegal structure? How was it able to pass health and safety inspections, environmental assessments, and planning processes?

A 'cleverly written' report

In its "Introduction to the Environmental Protection Aspects of the Building Project," Ruihai Logistics draws the following conclusion from its risk assessment:

"This project involves the storage and transportation of hazardous and poisonous materials which are flammable and highly explosive ... [We conclude] from our environmental risk assessment, after the appropriate measures have been taken to prevent leakages, accidents or fires, that the project will have no impact on nearby residents, nor on the environment."

A closer reading of this environmental impact assessment reveals that it is written very cleverly.

The authors leave hints, referring in particular to the fact that there is a fire station and a police station within a few dozen meters of the site, and that "in the event of fire or explosion, the emergency fire personnel would be able to arrive promptly at the scene and take immediate action to deal with the fire, thereby effectively preventing the leakage of hazardous materials."

I think they mostly left this hint here to suggest that the facility was too close to a residential area.

The authors go on to add a condition to their conclusion that local residents won't be affected, saying that [in the case of fire or explosion], any downwind residents must be warned in a timely manner and given directions about what to do.

But when this explosion happened, it refuted the conclusions of this environmental assessment in blood and human life.

Public never consulted

How is one supposed to effectively prevent leaks or inform and direct the population in the middle of an explosion that is sudden, powerful, and hot enough to kill?

What is really staggering are the results of the public consultation contained in this report, which says that notices were given out during the assessment, and an opinion poll was conducted, with public participation:

"During the consultation period, we received no objections, and the poll results showed that 100 percent of respondents thought that the location in ... the port was appropriate," the report claims.

"From an environmental point of view, 51.6 percent of people supported the project, 48.4 percent had no opinion, showing that the general public both understands and accepts the project."

But after the blast, Beijing News and other media organizations carried out on-the-spot interviews with residents of nearby apartment complexes, who said that they didn't know about the warehouse, and that they were never consulted.

Wasn't claiming 100 percent public support overkill? Wouldn't 90 percent have done just as well?


To put it plainly, environmental assessments are there for the purpose of supervision. At the core of the idea of supervision is the concept of independence and impartiality.

But with Chinese characteristics, this becomes a process of self-supervision amid a web of vested interests.

When the environmental assessment fee is paid by the company, when environmental protection officials take fees and even bribes from companies, then they are effectively silenced.

Effective supervision and the separation of powers isn't the preserve of "hostile foreign forces."

People have understood throughout history that unbridled corruption results when the tax-collection and the accounting are done by the same person.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Veteran journalist and author Zheng Yi is known outside China for his novel Lao Jing, as well as his hard-hitting expose of cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).





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