Deadly Chemical Blast Kills 114 in Tianjin, China—Could the Same Happen in the U.S.?
by Taylor Smith-Hams
August 18, 2015
Last week, explosions at a chemical storage facility rocked communities in Tianjin, China, killing 114 people and displacing thousands. There's frighteningly little to stop the same from happening in the United States.
© Wu Hao / Greenpeace
Late in the night on August 12, a warehouse containing a stockpile of hazardous chemicals—including ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate, calcium carbide, and sodium cyanide—burst into flames in China’s third-largest city.
The explosions caused panic in the surrounding residential area. Unaware of the dangers posed by the warehouse’s contents, many residents initially thought the explosions were bombs or earthquakes. Given that the blasts registered as magnitude 2.3 and 2.9 earthquakes, that initial reaction is unsurprising.
The explosions also caught firefighters off guard due to what appears to be a lack of information about the chemicals stored on site. Calcium carbide and ammonium nitrate are known to emit toxic gas when they come into contact with water. When firefighters emerged on the scene without knowledge of these chemicals’ presence, the New York Times reports they “may have inadvertently contributed to the explosions” by hosing down the flames.
Zoning regulation violations also likely contributed to the devastation. According to Chinese law, residential complexes must be at least 3,200 feet from hazardous sites, yet the closest apartment complex was just 2,000 feet away. And casualties could have been even higher if the explosions had occurred during the day when more workers would have been at the warehouse.
This horrifying accident has raised a recurring question: could it happen in the U.S.?
U.S. Communities Face Great Risk of Chemical Disasters
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. This type of disaster can happen anywhere in the world where inherently dangerous petrochemical facilities operate. Three chemical incidents in Texas and Indiana in the last two weeks alone are proof of the hazards posed by chemical facilities in the U.S.
On August 9, a Shell facility in Deer Park, Texas released 326,166 pounds of butadiene, a known carcinogen. Though no injuries were reported, long-term exposure to the gas is extremely dangerous to human health.
On August 14, explosions triggered a 3-alarm fire at a DrillChem plant in Conroe, Texas. A shelter-in-place order was issued for everyone within a two-mile radius of the plant as firefighters fought the blaze for hours.
And August 16, Hydrite Chemical Company spilled sulfur dioxide in Terre Haute, Indiana. Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas that is dangerous when inhaled. At least 15 people were taken to the hospital for complaints of burning sensations in their lungs and throats, and 200 people at an event at a nearby racetrack were evacuated.
Though none of these recent incidents resulted in the level of damage that the explosions in Tianjin did, the potential for a disaster of that magnitude remains in the U.S.
While we have more information on these hazards in the U.S. thanks to reporting requirements included in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, that increased knowledge still did not prevent the West, Texas fertilizer explosion, which killed 15 people, including 11 firefighters.
Will the EPA Protect Our Communities?
Knowledge itself cannot solve the problem. Nor can improved emergency response. These catastrophes will continue to occur worldwide as long as obsolete technologies and inherently dangerous practices continue. Preventing incidents from occurring in the first place is the only way to ensure the safety of communities and emergency responders.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to prevent these types of disasters in the U.S. by requiring chemical facilities to switch to safer alternatives that remove or significantly reduce the possibility of a catastrophic event. The agency has pledged to propose new chemical plant safety rules in September. These upcoming rules must include requirements for facilities to implement safer technologies wherever feasible in order to shift the current focus on emergency response to prevention.