Professionalism/Tianjin Chemical Storage Explosions


Location of Explosion

Tianjin is a municipality below Beijing, on the eastern shore of China. It hosts Tianjin Port, the largest artificial shipping port in its Binhai New District.[1] On August 12, 2015, a warehouse owned by Ruihai International Logistics, a storage and distribution service for dangerous chemicals, exploded. The event featured two large explosions followed by fires and minor explosions. The cause of the explosions was illegal storage of highly combustible chemicals. Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Renault, and Toyota also had eight thousand new cars parked in lots near the blast site, which were all burned by the explosions.[2] The explosion caused an estimated 1.1 billion dollars in damages, resulted in 165 lives lost, and injured 797.[3] The explosion and fires that followed claimed the lives of 99 firefighters, 11 police officers, and 55 other personnel. Over 17,000 homes and nearly 800 businesses were damaged by the explosion. [4]


On August 12th, 2015, 10:50 PM, the Tianjin Fire Fighting Command Center received multiple reports that the Tianjin Port had caught fire. At 11:06 PM, the Tianjin Fire Department sent first forces to the scene, and remaining forces arrived 10 minutes later. It was reported that the first explosion occurred at 11:34 PM.[5] China's National Seismic Network recorded the local earthquake magnitude as 2.3 on the Richter scale. The second explosion occurred 30 seconds later, and registered as a 2.9 magnitude earthquake.[6] The explosions were large enough to be photographed by Himawari 8, a Japanese weather satellite over 22,000 miles away.[7] According to the China Earthquake Networks Center, the first explosion was equivalent to three tons of TNT, and the second explosion was equivalent to 21 tons of TNT.[8] The explosions resulted in an enormous crater several city blocks in diameter.



Niu Yuegang, Tianjin's fire department deputy director, confirmed that over 40 different chemicals were discovered at the blast site in an interview with China Central Television. There was a total of 3,000 tonnes of chemicals at the port, according Yuegang.[9] Local reports state that there were 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, and 500 tonnes of potassium nitrate.[10] The State Council team in China concluded that the main cause of the explosion was the depletion of wetting agents of nitrocellulose. Nitrocellulose is an extremely combustible and reactive material that can react in high temperature environments. The containers in which it was stored heated up and the material spontaneously exploded and the explosion spread to the other dangerous chemicals in the warehouse.[11]

In an analysis done by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, it was theorized that other hazardous substances ignited near the ammonium nitrate, which created high temperatures and vibration effects that caused the ammonium nitrate to explode.[12] Other reports state that calcium carbide and metal powder violently reacted with the water from the first fire extinguishing force.[13] Further research states dust particulate aided the explosions that occured in the Ruhihai International Logistics warehouse.[14]


Government ResponseEdit

Following the explosions, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), China's internet watchdog, permanently shut down 18 news sites and temporarily suspended another 32 for "spreading rumors" about the event.[15] China's censors have also deleted thousands of posts about the disaster on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging site.[16] China has also censored a commemorator report by financial magazine Caijing. According to this report, home owners in neighborhoods near the blast were pressured to sell their damaged apartments to state-backed developers at lower-than-market prices.[17] Families of the firefighters who died, however, were granted 2.3 millian yuan ($360,669) compensations from the Tianjin government.[18] Tianjin also plans to build a 24-hectare park on the site of the blast and erect a monument in memory of those who lost their lives in the accident. The government in Tianjin's Binhai New Area also stated that the repurchase price for the damaged houses in the blasts will be 1.3 times of the price the residents bought their homes.[19]

Medical InfrastructureEdit

A catastrophe like the explosion gave insight about the Tianjin emergency care and medical infrastructure. Analysis of the injuries after the event concluded that in mass casualty disasters, injuries overlap hospital units.[20] Further analysis showed the ineffectiveness of the "present pre-hospital system" in Tianjin. The over-triage rate reached 62.07%.[21] This rate resulted in less effective care for critically injured patients by not allowing the severely injured civilians access to higher intensive care units. The Tianjin case revealed a need for medical infrastructure changes concerning the pre-hospital systems.

Environmental EffectsEdit

Investigating officers discovered 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide at the port; this is 70 times the permitted amount.[22] Sodium Cyanide was found to have seeped into plumbing infrastructure of the port but officials mitigated its direct runoff into the sea.[23] While the direct runoff was limited, sodium cyanide thunderstorms have reportedly killed off mass amounts of fish and burned skin. However, Tianjin's environmental monitoring center has claimed the white foam as "a normal phenomenon when rain falls, and similar things have occurred before."[24] In addition, the China Global Television Network released a statement over Twitter claiming there was "no cyanide detected in sample water where massive fish die-off occurred." [25] The crater left the explosions filled with 40000 tons of contaminated water. By August 17th, in the area surrounding the blast, water samples revealed up to 28.4 times the acceptable limit of sodium cyanide. Three days later, the Ministry of Environmental Protection in China found toxins up to 356 time the acceptable limit.[26]

Legal ActionEdit

Directly following the explosion, the government of China found five state officials at the ministerial level responsible for the disaster. The court in Tianjin gave 49 people prison sentences. Of the 49 sentenced, 25 were government officials who were sentenced between 3 and 7 years to prison for crimes including dereliction of duty, abuse of power, and accepting bribes. The other 24 arrests were of employees of Ruihai International Logistics, the company at fault.[27] Chairman of Ruihai International Logistics, Yu Xuewei was found guilty of bribing port administration to obtain certifications; he was sentenced to death with a 2 year reprieve.[28] In addition, Yang Dongliang, China's highest ranking work-safety official, was placed under investigation under accusations of corruption. In 2012, Dongliang signed an order that loosened rules for handling hazardous chemicals, which allowed companies to more easily get permission to handle chemicals.[29]

Factors Leading to ExplosionsEdit

Ignoring Safety RegulationsEdit

Ruihai's clients claimed that Ruihai ignored industry recommendations, and consistently packed its shipping yard with large volumes of various volatile chemicals in a hazardous manner.[30] Chinese regulations state that the specified maximum amounts of potassium nitrate, dosium sulfide, and sodium cyanide are 25 tonnes each. Ruihai Company held 1343, 484, and 681 tonnes of the chemicals respectively.[31] Chinese regulations state that hazardous chemicals must be kept in well-ventilated areas and far away from heat sources, like sunlight and power cords. Ruihai's warehouses, however, were made with questionable construction, filled with outdated equipment, and lacked proper chemical fire extinguishing systems. Furthermore, Chinese regulations state that any warehouse that houses dangerous chemicals must be at least 1,000 meters away from residential areas. Ruihai's warehouse was 560 meters away from the nearest housing estate.[32] Another safety regulation ignored by Ruihai International Logistics was that barrels of ammonium nitrate should not be stacked. The warehouse contained many barrels that were stacked which acted as the fuel of the explosions.[33] China's deadly Tianjin explosions show the limits of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive.[34] In fact, local residents stated that they were unaware that harmful chemicals were stored in the immediate vicinity.[35]

Illegal HandlingEdit

In the investigation by the State Administration of Work Safety, the Tianjin Explosion was categorized as a "accountability accident". The investigation held 20 companies and 171 individuals accountable for the explosion.[36] For Ruihai to gain the ability to operate business activities with hazardous chemicals these 20 companies had to approve Ruihai International Logistics business practices. The Tianjin Municipal Transportation Commission unlawfully granted operating licences and failed to supervise illegal business activities of Ruihai International Logistics. The Tianjin Administration of Work Safety also failed to find safety hazards and illegal business dealings. Knowledge of Ruihai Company's illegal business practices were ignored by the Binhai District Plan and Land Resources Administration. Customs coming into Tianjin Port did not supervise this shipments of chemicals from the Ruihai warehouse. Ministry of Transport deputy inspector, Wang Jinwen, passed Ruihai International Logistics on safety assessments while knowing the company should not have. [37]

In interviews with Ruihai's former clients and associates, it was revealed that Ruihai was handling hazardous chemicals before getting a permit To get a permit, Ruihai selected and paid a private contractor for a safety review. Ruihai also neglected to inform the fire department that their shipping yard was a warehouse for dangerous good, according to Quan Li, a firefighter in Tianjin. This caused the firefighters to blindly spray water on the fire not knowing that the water was adding to the conflagration. Li states that the department identified the most dangerous sites in the port, but Riuhai was not on their map.[38]


Management deficiencies in the storage of hazardous chemicals and failure to take adequate safety precautions are the factors that caused the explosion. Ideally, the warehouse should have been equipped with systems capable of handling chemical fires and the first-responders should have been able to easily access information regarding what chemicals were stored there. Ruihai International Logistics exploited weak governance using political connections to avoid implementing costly safety measures. Local officials unlawfully overlooked dangers posed by Ruihai International Logistics' facilities, effectively compromising the safety of its citizens in pursuit of economic development. Negligence on part of the company in regards to management of their supply chain is indicative of the degree to which safety of the public and their workers was prioritized.

The methods by which Ruihai International acquired the rights to operate, and continue operating, were only possible due to a widespread culture of corruption within the local government. Tianjin Port Group doubles as the commercial operator and the regulator of the port: such an arrangement can easily give rise to they types of conflicts of interest that enable actors such as Ruihai International to disregard international safety standards.[39]


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  15. Sonnad, N. (2015, August 17) Chinese censors have blocked 50 websites for "spreading rumors" about the Tianjin explosions.
  16. Linder, A. (2015, August 14) China's censors crack down on online chatter about the Tianjin explosions.
  17. Huang, Z. (2016, August 12) A year after the Tianjin blast, public mourning and discussion about it are still censored in China.
  18. China Daily (2015, September 10) Tianjin announces compensations for martyred firefighters' families.
  19. Po, H., Lei, D., Li, Z. (2015 September 16) After Tianjin Explosion, Residents Lose the Battle for Justice.
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  24. Durden, T. (2015, August 20) "Mystery" Cyanide Foam Covers Streets In China As "Massive Fish Die-Off" Observed After Tianjin Explosion
  25. Chinese Government Television Network (2015, Aug 20) Tianjin officials respond to massive fish die-off.
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  35. Qingyun, H., Wong Tsoi-lai, C. (2015, August 14) Tragedy raises questions over safety planning.
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  38. Jabobs, A., Hernandez, J., Buckley, C. (2015, August 30) Behind Deadly Tianjin Blast, Shortcuts and Lax Rules.