A deadly natural gas blast in southwestern China could have been prevented through the use of easily available technology, and has prompted calls for more efforts to promote public safety and protect worker rights, RFA reports.

The drilling accident on Dec. 23 at a Kaixian County gas field operated by the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) 337 kilometers northeast of Chongqing killed 243 people and released a cloud of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas across the surrounding countryside.

Local officials said at the time that the blast was not the result of human error. But industrial safety experts have challenged that view in recent interviews with RFA.

"What we do in the U.S. and what most oilfield operators do is they install what they call blowout preventers on the wells, so that should you strike a high-pressure gas deposit, it's contained. It doesn't blow out the well," Robert Ebel, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told special correspondent Michael Lelyveld.

"It tells me that perhaps the drillers in that particular gas field did not have access to the latest technology or knowhow. I can't draw any other conclusion," Ebel said.

The fiery blowout at the Chuandongbei gas field also injured more than 9,000 people in the surrounding rural communities. More than 41,000 people were evacuated after the pressurized poison spread over a 25-square-kilometer zone. Farmers and other residents, including children, were found dead in their fields.

The official media was also quick to focus on the sudden jump in casualty figures, following initial reports of only eight deaths. The suspicion of a coverup is believed to be part of a State Council investigation into the cause of the blast and efforts to rescue the victims.

After a preliminary investigation, the deputy director of the State Administration on Worker Safety (SAWS), Sun Huashan, blamed workers for disassembling the blowout preventer and underestimating the pressure in the well, China's CCTV reported.

Ebel said that not all the facts of the investigation had been made public, but the dangers of drilling in gas fields are well-known and should have been expected.

"It's not clear to me whether this is the first exploration well or whether others had been drilled in the region. Certainly, if others had been drilled nearby, they would have known or should have known what kind of pressures would be encountered. But still, it comes down to taking precautions like installing a blowout preventer, but apparently, they did not."

"The dangers are well-known and you take precautions, but here I think they're fairly lackadaisical about the danger, probably feeling that they could contain it, but they did not," Ebel said.

There have also been questions about whether CNPC will take responsibility. On December 29, Agence France-Presse reported that CNPC and its publicly-traded subsidiary PetroChina had both denied owning the field, while trying to place the burden on each other. In the meantime, it is unclear who will pay compensation to survivors of the blast.

The accident gives little basis for confidence as China presses ahead with plans to increase natural gas use in polluted cities like Shanghai to reduce reliance on coal. At the start of this year, the government announced the official opening of the giant West-East gas pipeline to Shanghai.

Industrial accidents claim tens of thousands of lives in China every year. Although the government says it is improving labor practices, official statistics still admit to staggering numbers of casualties. SAWS said last month that work safety accidents claim an average of 140,000 lives each year. #####


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