Nov 25, 2013 06:11 PM

Closer Look: Days after Qingdao Blast, Major Questions Still Unanswered

(Beijing) – A deadly explosion caused by a leak in an oil pipeline owned by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec) in the eastern city of Qingdao on November 22 has killed at least 55 people, injured 166 and left nine missing. However, three days after the accident, many basic questions remain unanswered.

The first is the simplest: In which pipeline did the leak occur?

Over the past three days, statements about the location of the leak have varied, confusing the public.

In the first two press conferences after the blast, local officials said the accident happened in a section of Huangwei pipeline, a new line linking the Huangdao reserve and the city of Weifang, which like Qingdao is also in Shandong Province. This 1.3 billion yuan, 176 kilometer pipeline started operating in August.

But on November 23, Sinopec said on it account on weibo, China's version of Twitter, that this was wrong. The accident, Sinopec said, occurred on the Donghuang line. This is a 248 kilometer line that links the Huangdao oil reserve and the Shandong city of Dongying that opened in July 1986.

On the afternoon of November 24, officials again said the pipeline involved was the Huangwei. They declined to give confused reporters more explanation.

Later that day Sinopec issued a statement indicating the leak was on the Donghuang pipeline.

The public is understandably annoyed because determining the location of the leak should not be complicated.

The second question concerns the reason for the leak and this has to do with the pipeline involved. If the leak was on the old Donghuang line, there will be questions as to whether inadequate maintenance was involved. However, if it occurred on the new Huangwei line, there will of course be questions about the quality of construction.

The third query is crucial. Officials say the oil leak was detected around 3:15 a.m. on November 22 and the blast occurred at 10:30 a.m. However, during this roughly seven-hour period, area residents received neither warnings nor evacuation notices, which local rules say they should have gotten.

At a November 22 press conference, officials said the police were told about the leak right after it was detected and workers at the oil reserve turned off a valve right at 3:15 a.m.

Then the next day the vice secretary general of the Qingdao government, Guo Jishan, said officials learned there was a problem only after the blast.

This discrepancy raises questions about whether Sinopec kept the government in the dark or whether officials knew of a problem but failed to act.

Finally, one might also ask whether Sinopec and the local government knew the underground pipelines posed a risk to residents in Huangdao, the suburban area of Qingdao where the explosion occurred.

In September 2011 and again in September 2012, Sinopec Pipeline Storage & Transportation Co., which operates both pipelines, published statements that said population increases were posing problems for pipeline maintenance.

Sinopec proposed renovating the Donghuang pipeline two years ago, but an environment assessment has not yet been approved.

Caixin looks forward to getting clear answers from officials and Sinopec. The sooner the better.

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