Jun 04, 2013 03:51 PM

Closer Look: String of Accidents in Northeast Should Be Investigated and Explained

Three serious accidents in four days in three northeastern provinces have caused a high death toll and heavy economic losses. The frequency of accidents should bring attention to work safety hazards, and begs for open, thorough and transparent investigations.

The dark days started on May 31, when a fire engulfed China Grain Reserves Corp. barns in Heilongjiang and destroyed 40,000 tons of grains. The economic loss was in the hundreds of millions of yuan.

The fire occurred four days after a Communist Party's discipline inspection team started to review the company's top officials. Net users linked the fire to the inspection, speculating that the accident was intended to cover up wrongdoing. They are perhaps recalling the famous plot of a popular soap opera series about the politics behind the national grain reserve system during the Qing Dynasty.

An official investigation blamed a short circuit for the blaze, and at a June 3 press conference the province's top firefighter ruled out the possibility the fire was intentional. This did not, however, appease the public.

Before the smoke from the Heilongjiang fire cleared, two oil tanks exploded on June 2 at a China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) facility in Dalian, Liaoning Province. Two people were missing and two were injured in the sixth explosion at a CNPC plant in the last four years. The fire has been extinguished, and the local government said no seawater was polluted.

However, the heaviest blow was yet to come. On the morning of June 3, a fire at a poultry farm near Changchun, in Jilin, killed at least 120 people. More than 300 workers were in the plant in Dehui that is owned by a company called Baoyuanfeng.

Firefighters blamed the blaze on chemical leak, but both the media and the public want to know more. Representatives of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the nation's top prosecutor, are currently in Jilin to work with provincial, city and county prosecutors to investigate the accident. 

The practice of involving prosecutors in the investigations of serious accidents started only a few years ago, and it is a positive step in efforts to establish the rule of law in China. 

In 2006, frequent mine explosions prompted a joint probe from prosecutors and the State Administration of Work Safety. In 2007, rules were put in place to make the involvement of prosecutors in such investigations the norm.  

Between November 2009 and August 2010, prosecutors investigated 1,657 serious workplace accidents and food-safety incidents. A total of 707 cases went to court, and 944 people were accused of dereliction of duty. Such inquiries after serious accidents are now often expanded into criminal investigations.

In 2009, the then deputy director of the bureau of dereliction of duty and tort at the top prosecutor's office, Song Hansong, said something revealing: "Behind almost every serious work-safety accident, there is dereliction of duty by government employees."

In most cases, low-level staffers are responsible for work-safety accidents, Song said.

The public has welcomed the involvement of prosecutors in the investigations, but starting an inquiry is not enough. Prosecutors should conduct probes independent from governments or organizations that could be held responsible for accidents.

When their work is done, they should be allowed to issue their findings. The general public is increasingly demanding about learning the truth behind these accidents, but investigation results are usually not published and media outlets are sometimes silenced.

The recent accidents in the northeast are heartbreaking. They will certainly result in continuous public inquiry. Prosecutors should take the opportunity to launch a full, independent probe, reveal their findings to the public and hold those to blame responsible.

Only real actions yield trust. With the trust of the public behind them, prosecutors will be able to establish their authority.

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