China, Rocked by Fresh Blasts, Jails 49 Over Tianjin Disaster

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Bulldozers clear off wreckage created by the deadly explosions in Binhai New Area in Tianjin, China,  August 17, 2015.
Bulldozers clear off wreckage created by the deadly explosions in Binhai New Area in Tianjin, China, August 17, 2015.

As China jailed 49 people this week in connection with massive explosions in August 2015, the country was rocked by two further blasts at chemical facilities in the same week.

Courts in the northern port city of Tianjin handed down jail terms to 49 people, including managers and employees at Ruihai Logistics where the blast took place, and 25 government officials.

At least 165 people died and hundreds more were injured in the blasts, which ripped through the city's warehouse and residential districts on Aug. 12, 2015, shattering windows up to five kilometers away and sending a cloud of toxic fumes into the sky.

The Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court handed a suspended death sentence to Ruihai Logistics chairman Yu Xuewei, after finding him guilty of bribing port administration officials with cash and goods worth 157,500 yuan (U.S.$23,333) for a hazardous chemicals license.

Yu was convicted of illegal storage of hazardous materials, illegal business operations, causing incidents involving hazardous materials, and bribery, and also ordered to pay a fine of 700,000 yuan.

His deputies and senior colleagues at Ruihai Logistics were handed jail terms ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment, while lower-ranking employees were given sentences of 3-10 years in prison.

"All suspects agreed with the verdicts and expressed remorse," state news agency Xinhua reported, adding that the disaster did damage worth 6.87 billion yuan (U.S.$1.01 billion).

The court ruled that the blasts were an accident with "extraordinary seriousness," with Ruihai Logistics bearing the main responsibility, the report said.

"The company ignored industrial safety rules and violated municipal district planning by illegally setting up a hazardous materials storage yard. Management was chaotic, and safety problems persisted," it quoted the court judgement as saying.

Wide dereliction of duty

The court also found that officials of government agencies including transportation, ports, customs, industrial safety, city planning, and maritime affairs were guilty of "dereliction of duty and abuse of power," Xinhua said.

Twenty-five officials, who included former Tianjin city transportation chief Wu Dai, were handed jail terms of between three and seven years.

Meanwhile, Tianjin Zhongbin Haisheng, a company that provided counterfeit safety evaluation papers to Ruihai Logistics, was also named a responsible party, and 11 of its employees jailed.

A victim of the blast surnamed Ma said he thought the fine of 700,000 yuan was a little low.

"I think for such a major disaster he should have been ordered to pay five million yuan," Ma said.

A relative of a victim surnamed Yang said the government had done what it could, but that could never be enough for victims' families.

"We've received [compensation]. We were paid at the time, and it was enough in a material sense," Yang said. "But psychologically, the scars will always be there; they'll never go away."

As the courts were deliberating their sentences, two more massive blasts hit Liu'an city in the eastern province of Anhui and Zibo in the eastern province of Shandong on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Munitions plant blast

Five people were killed and at least nine injured in Zhoucun district of Shandong's Zibo city on Wednesday after an explosion in an ammonia tank at the Zhoucun Jiazhou Power Co, local authorities said via social media.

An employee who answered the phone at the Zibo municipal government offices on Wednesday confirmed the incident, but gave no details.

"Investigations are in progress," the official said.

And reports said 55 people were in a workshop belonging to the Qinjiaqiao Munitions Factory in Liu'an on Tuesday when a huge blast occurred, with only five workers emerging alive.

A local resident told RFA that the explosion had felt "like an earthquake."

"When the blast went off, I was in Shucheng county town," the resident said. "It felt to me like an earthquake."

The district is home to four or five munitions factories, he said. "They're all around here, in every direction," he said. "They've never [exploded] before."

An employee who answered the phone at the Tangshu Industrial Park where the reported blast took place declined to comment, however.

Environmental activist Wu Lihong said there are still no indications that safety standards are improving in China as a result of lessons learned in Tianjin, however.

"That will be very difficult because the problems are inherent in the system, and there's no way to change that," Wu told RFA. "If they implemented the law properly, then we wouldn't see all this pollution, year in, year out."

"If the system doesn't change, you forget about the rest of it."

Reported by Xin Lin and Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lee Lai for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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