Friday, August 14, 2015

Chinese Disasters - Environmental and Social Problems of Rapid Development

China has been struggling mightily to develop as a world power with a modern economy.   To a lesser extent India and other countries have been doing the same.  Unfortunately, it appears again and again that the ability to make rapid technical advances has the dangerous ability to outrun human advances in education, technical competence and perhaps even social consciousness.  The most recent major Chinese disaster is the monstrous chemical explosion and fire in the port city of Tianjin.  These photos show the extent of the disaster, and the link below with multiple videos shows the human response.

One video apparently by Americans shows reaction to the initial smaller explosion accompanied by joking, with one saying maybe a gas station explosion, which quickly morphs to shock and concern as the second and perhaps third huge explosions are shown.  Initial conversation includes comments with bleeped words, then fear with the second explosion and a comment about getting dressed (the explosions were around 11 pm), after the third flare, they decided to get downstairs.   The reports have all said 2 explosions, but this certainly looks like a third one with the talking continuing in the background from the 2nd to 3rd one so I don’t see how this could have been a repeat of the 2nd one. Also you see individual flaming parts raining outward like a fireworks explosion.

This is the first of a series of videos at this site.  Others have additional information of interest.  For example, China is well known for trying to downplay the seriousness of their disasters (more on this later), but one of the subsequent videos is critical of the flouting of safety laws forbidding construction of homes, schools, and hospitals within a dangerous distance of chemical and other dangerous sites.  Apparently there were serious violations here at Tianjin.  This video also reported 4 dangerous chemicals at the site.  Calcium carbide when wet (from firemen's hoses) produces flammable acetylene gas.  The second highly dangerous chemical was about 700 TONS of sodium cyanide, which in addition to being very poisonous also produces explosive gases.

Another video follows this one and while talking about the chemicals, this report in Chinese with English subtitles totally fails to mention the cyanide.  Finally, today (7-18-15), officials are admitting the seriousness of the chemical situation and potential danger to the public.  However they are also publicizing how they have their best people on the job to analyze and clean up the mess.  While continuing to suggest there is no cyanide in the air, people continue to report various respiratory symptoms.  Of course, there are many earth and water samples needing testing.

A following video shot from helicopter shows the vast area of devastation including masses of metal shipping container washed up against a high rise like pebbles at a beach after a storm. If you have not already viewed the photos in the first link, you may be surprised to see the vast number of new incinerated automobiles that will never make a Chinese family happy.  Another video shot shows a large water filled crater, perhaps 400 or more feet in diameter, estimate based on the probable 40 feet length of shipping containers nearby.  A television report on CCTV showed pouring of a huge concrete dam to prevent contaminated water from running into the river or harbor.

The death toll  is up to 112, with over 700 hospitalized and over 50 critical or serious. At least 25 firefighters killed and 1,000 responding. One person was rescued ABOUT 165 feet from the explosion point, but 95 people are still missing, including 85 firefighters.  On 8/23/15, dead reported was 123, missing 40 and over 600 still hospitalized. On 8/25/15, 135 reported dead, and on 8/29 147 total had been found. The death toll could have been much higher if it had occurred during the height of the workday.  Since the explosions happened around 11 pm, the daylight shots are long after the initial explosions.  After several days, the government has also expanded the danger exclusion zone for residents to almost 2 miles, probably because of the cyanide issue.  

Their chemical and nuclear personnel are also working quickly to clean up before the next rain.  Small fires continue to break out, perhaps because of the 3,000 automobiles incinerated with some gas in the tank.  In addition China is now examining industrial safety throughout the country.   For example, Sinopec, the company responsible for the disastrous Quindao pipeline explosion that killed 62 people 2 years ago, has been found to NOT have proper oil fire fighting personal on hand.

The most recent victims of this disaster may be fish, although some say that warm summer water might be the cause.  At any rate there sure are a lot of them in these photos.  A Chinese millionaire/philanthropist has been hospitalized for respiratory problems after coming to Tianjin to offer material support as he has done at other disasters.  Some admire him, others see him as a Trump like self promoter.  Here are a number of different stories.

This is not the first major Chinese disaster I have reported at this blog.  Here is the link to the extensive story on oil based environmental disasters with particular reference to the Qingdao oil pipeline in downtown Qingdao which devastated a mile of the city and killed 62 people in 2013.  The Chinese government and perhaps even our own so neglected this story that few here even know it occurred.  Given the controversy over the XL Keystone Pipeline, there was no doubt pressure to not cover this pipeline story while giving emphasis to the Lac Megantic oil train disaster that killed 47.  Billionaire Koch Brothers have pipeline interest and are fighting billionaire Warren Buffet who has oil train interests.  Their fight of course underlines the need to move to renewables quickly.

This link from the World Socialist Web Site describes the role of corporate irresponsibility in a number of preventable recent industrial accidents.  They point out that working conditions in China are notoriously dangerous.  In the first half of of 2014, 19 serious accidents killed more than 200 people.  This particular accident occurred 8-2-14 in Kunshan at a metal products company specializing in aluminum processing and car wheel hubs employing 450 with 264 at work then.  After 2 days 71 workers had died.  At least 186 were injured from this explosion probably caused by an exposed flame in a room filled with combustible dust.  The South China Morning post reported that "the dangerous, dusty work conditions...had been known about for years."  City work safety regulators had warned about the explosion potential be were ignored.

Some of these products end up with General Motors, Volkswagen and Toyota.  Companies like GM flock to China to take advantage of low wages and deplorable working conditions.  A week earlier GM was praised for corporate responsibility at the 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility Annual Conference in Beijing.  Sadly, this accident demonstrates how meaningless claims of corporate responsibility remain.  The drive for profits overrides every other consideration including workers' lives.  Like other major factory disasters, locked doors contributed to the high death toll.  Tragically, these disasters only result in big corporations moving to a different supplier which employs the same kind of dangerous practices.

This August 2, 2014 link reports on the deaths of 68 workers at an automotive parts plant that serves GM and other auto companies.

Two other aluminum dust explosion in 2011 at Apple supply facilities have also caused deaths and injuries.   Conditions there have been so bad workers have committed and/or threatened to commit suicide.  Foxconn's response to this problem was to install nets to catch them.  Chinese safety agencies have worked to urge better safety measures involving dust throughout the country.  Obviously, not as effectively as they should have.

At least 121 people died in the explosion and fire at a poultry processing plant in June 2013, where locked doors also contributed to the death toll.  Some companies employ children as young as 12, and force them to work 11 hour days with few breaks.  Samsung suspended business with one such company not because of the child labor, but because of the negative publicity.  Apple has also have problems with this child labor issue.

[12/21/15] - Here we have another potentially deadly disaster.  Almost 100 lives may be at risk as the result of a massive landslide.  "The accumulation of a large amount of construction waste meant that mud was sacked too steep....A nearby section of China's major West-East natural gas pipeline also exloded,,.though it was not clear if this had any impact on the landslide."  The New York Times has done a detailed piece analyzing the run-away development in Shenzhen and the consequences, one of which is this giant landslide of construction debris.

[There are a number of other disasters in China and elsewhere that I plan to add here, so sign up for my email alerts in the space below my photos or keep checking back for new info.]



Another tragic disaster occurred in Bangladesh when efforts were made to rush into cheap textile production.  This 2013 disaster was caused when too much heavy equipment was put in a building not designed for the weight. At least 1,100 people died and 2,500 more were pulled from the wreckage.  A story one year later reports on the efforts made and being made to rescue and improve their highly important textile industry.  Both business and workers are organizing to improve things, but the victims themselves or their families are still awaiting compensation. The wreckage is mind boggling.  Perhaps the world wide prevalence of cell phone photography will spark greater attention to these disasters and their prevention.


Washington, DC has its own local problems.  The most recent is the disrailment of a Metro subway train in downtown DC.  Apparently heat or other factors had caused the rails to spread.  Metro had known about this for a month, but the tracks had not been tightened up and properly realigned.  This is the same kind of human error that is causing so many accidents, disasters, and deaths throughout the world.  People in Virginia are urging that another Metro tunnel be built under the Potomac River.   This story written 2 years ago has almost 200 comments.  Given the rate at which we are having major breakdowns, a second tunnel is probably a wise idea.  Imagine the chaos in working Washington, if people could not get to and from DC and VA by Metro for days or weeks.  Here is one idea for adding another tunnel.

We also have potential problems with the CSX tunnel reconstruction here in DC as illustrated by this Homeland Security official report on the Howard Tunnel fire in Baltimore in 2001.  This link gives details on the 2010 removal of 13 derailed cars from the Howard Tunnel by CSX.  There are also a number of other CSX and rail problems at this link.  DC folk have not been shy about expressing their concerns for our local CSX tunnel work.


[More reporting needed on this issue.  Come back again for more information and links.]