Caixin
Nov 30, 2018 07:44 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

‘The Air Was on Fire’: ChemChina Apologizes for Deadly Plant Explosion

The scene outside Hebei Shenghua Chemical Co. Ltd. on Wednesday after an explosion in Zhangjiakou, North China’s Hebei province. Photo: Caixin
The scene outside Hebei Shenghua Chemical Co. Ltd. on Wednesday after an explosion in Zhangjiakou, North China’s Hebei province. Photo: Caixin

An explosion in North China early Wednesday morning that killed 23 people and injured 22 was caused by a vinyl chloride leak at a plant run by a subsidiary of the China National Chemical Corporation (ChemChina), the state-owned chemical manufacturer admitted in a statement Friday afternoon.

The statement came after a press conference on Friday where local government officials in Zhangjiakou, a city in Hebei about 120 miles north of Beijing, contradicted earlier state media accounts which claimed a truck carrying the highly-flammable gas acetylene caused the blast. Those media reports have now been deleted.

Instead the officials said vinyl chloride, a colorless, highly flammable gas also known as chloroethene, leaked at a factory owned by Shenghua Chemical Company, a ChemChina subsidiary. The gas met an open flame and set off a chain explosion of trucks that were transporting chemicals to plants in the area on the outskirts of Zhangjiakou.

Vinyl chloride is primarily used to produce polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a soft plastic used to make pipes, hoses, medical and plumbing parts.

In the statement, ChemChina took responsibility for the leak, admitting that it came from one of the plants owned by their subsidiary Shenghua, and apologized. The company said it would carefully investigate the incident and “make every effort to cooperate in the rescue of the injured and do everything we can to reduce losses.”

Many of those who lost their lives are thought to be truck drivers asleep in their vehicles as they waited to make their deliveries. After hearing the explosion, residents of nearby villages fled their houses in temperatures below freezing.

On Thursday evening, Zhangjiakou officials said that they had detained a number of employees of “relevant enterprises,” but did not specify how many had been detained or which companies may be involved.

A Shenghua employee reached by telephone earlier this week told Caixin the incident was not related to their company. “The pictures of the explosion online are not our company, our company has not been affected,” they said.

At the site of the explosion on Nov. 29, the charred frames of several 12-wheeler trucks sat by the roadside, their tops blown off and windows smashed. East of the Shenghua plant there were still more than a dozen trucks waiting in line to unload goods. One driver waiting to unload his cargo told Caixin that at least 100 trucks had been stranded waiting to make deliveries to Shenghua. Restaurants around the plant had been closed since the explosion and drivers were surviving on meals of instant noodles.

Villagers from the area who went to the scene after the incident said vehicles were still bursting into flames. One told Caixin that “it was like walking around in the apocalypse.” He described smoke so thick that he could only see two meters (6.5 feet) in front of him, and a pungent smell in the air.

Recalling the ferocity of the blaze he described being so frightened that his legs were shaking. “It was as if the air was catching on fire,” he told Caixin.

At a press conference on Nov. 29, the deputy mayor of Zhangjiakou said that on-site monitoring by the environmental protection department did not detect any vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride or chlorine in the air. The explosion has not had any polluting impact, he said.

Contact reporter Ren Qiuyu (qiuyuren@caixin.com)

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