Date
21 October 2017
Rui Hai’s shipping yard covered more than 11 acres but clients said it routinely packed huge volumes of different volatile chemicals together in haphazard fashion. Photo: NYT
Rui Hai’s shipping yard covered more than 11 acres but clients said it routinely packed huge volumes of different volatile chemicals together in haphazard fashion. Photo: NYT

Chemicals and corruption: How the Tianjin tragedy unfolded

More than two weeks after explosions tore through a chemical warehouse complex in Tianjin, details about the company that owned it are coming to light.

Within two years, Rui Hai International Logistics had built a reputation as the go-to place for businesses looking to ship hazardous materials to customers abroad, a niche market that had been dominated by sluggish state enterprises.

One partner was the son of a local police chief, the other an executive at a state-run chemicals firm.

They formed the company after meeting at a dinner party, promising “outstanding service” and “good results”, according to The New York Times. 

Rui Hai offered lower prices, a no-hassle approach to paperwork and quick government approvals. Business was brisk.

It seemed like another success story for the Binhai New Area, a thriving economic development zone established here by the ruling Communist Party around one of China’s busiest seaports.

On Aug. 12, explosions at its warehouses leveled a swath of that district, killing 145 people, injuring more than 700 and leaving millions here fearful of toxic fallout.

Rui Hai has become a symbol of something else for many Chinese — the high cost of rapid industrialization in a closed political system rife with corruption.

Former Rui Hai clients and associates — and an unusually critical state media — are painting a picture of a company that exploited weak governance in a showcase economic district and used political connections to shield its operations from scrutiny.

Rui Hai began handling hazardous chemicals before it obtained a permit to do so.

It secured licenses and approvals from at least five local agencies that conducted questionable reviews of its operations.

Local authorities outsourced one safety review required for a storage permit to a private contractor that Rui Hai selected and paid.

As much as 3,000 tons of hazardous chemicals were stored at Rui Hai on the night of the explosions, including 700 tons of sodium cyanide, deadly in a dose of less than a tablespoon, and 1,300 tons of fertilizer nitrates, more than 500 times the amount used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Rui Hai’s shipping yard covered more than 11 acres but clients said it routinely packed huge volumes of different volatile chemicals together in haphazard fashion instead of storing them separately at safe distances and in smaller quantities as recommended in the industry.

“Nobody wanted to stand in their way,” said one chemicals exporter in Tianjin, who asked not to be named to protect his business from reprisal, when asked why regulators took no action.

The catastrophe has stunned a nation inured to living with one of the worst industrial safety records in the world.

By the government’s own count, more than 68,000 people were killed in such accidents last year — nearly 200 every day, most of them poor, powerless and far from China’s boom towns.

But the blasts at Rui Hai were different because they occurred so close to middle-class neighborhoods in one of China’s most prosperous cities, a modern metropolis of 15 million just a half-hour ride from Beijing on gleaming high-speed trains.

And they unfolded nearly in real time online, with dramatic video footage shared widely across social media before censors could stop it.

Criticism of the party’s management of the economy had already been on the rise, with growth at its slowest pace in a quarter-century and the stock market reeling since early summer.

Now the explosions have prompted broader questions about whether party officials who operate with few checks on their authority can pursue development without endangering public health and safety.

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FL/RA

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