A safety expert from the Ministry of Emergency Management said recently that the explosion at a chemical plant in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, that claimed 23 lives last month, was the result of sloppy management, poor maintenance and the mishandling of the emergency.
The preliminary investigation found that the explosion on Nov 28 was caused by a leak of vinyl chloride gas, a highly flammable substance, from a storage facility at Hebei Shenghua Chemical Industry's plant. The facility housed three gas storage tanks, two of which were filled with the explosive chemical.
Sun Guangyu, the ministry's director of safety supervision and management of hazardous chemicals, said such tanks should be inspected and serviced every one to two years, and undergo major maintenance work every five to six years, according to a China Central Television report on Sunday.
The company had done no inspection or maintenance at all on the storage tanks since 2012, Sun said.
When the leak began, the operators noticed a drop in internal pressure from one of the tanks but failed to examine the situation at the site. They simply pumped more gas into the tank to increase container pressure, following standard procedures.
"This is not a correct way to deal with emergencies," Sun said. "The rapid increase in pressure broke the container and made the leak even worse."
The initial blast occurred at 12:41 am, triggering a chain of explosions and waves of flames that engulfed 38 trucks and 12 other vehicles around the plant. Twenty-three people have died, and another 22 were injured.
Most of those who died were truck drivers ferrying coal and other goods along the 310 provincial highway, which passes adjacent to the plant.
Wang Haoshui, chief engineer at the Ministry of Emergency Management, said in a video meeting on Dec 2 that the safety management at Shenghua was lax and chaotic, with workers often playing with cellphones on the job, or simply absent, and that they kept sloppy records of their operations.
Sun's investigation supported those conclusions. "The company has inadequate management," Sun said, adding that many top executives at the company either held multiple positions or didn't show up to work.
The company also had accidents in 2013 and 2014, claiming a total of two lives, according to government records. In 2015, the work safety bureau of Zhangjiakou found 71 hidden safety threats at the chemical plant, including a leaking valve on its vinyl chloride storage tank.
On Friday, the ministry and the State Council said in a meeting with chemical industry executives that the blast was the most serious incident involving a State-owned enterprise in the chemical industry since 2012.
They called for the 14 chemical industry SOEs, including China National Chemical Corp, to pay attention to safety when handling dangerous substances, thoroughly examine security risks and take effective measures to prevent similar accidents.