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Illegal stores of ammonium nitrate caused fatal Tianjin warehouse blasts: Chinese probe

AP

Deadly warehouse blasts that killed 165 people in a Chinese port city in August were triggered when a chemical stored in an unlicensed facility became too dry and caught fire, investigators announced.

Twenty-five officials will face prosecution over the blasts on suspicion of dereliction of duty, abuse of power and bribery, the nation’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday, citing the Supreme People’s Procuratorate.

An investigative team assembled by the State Council, China’s Cabinet, said flames spread among stocks of nitrocellulose, a flammable compound used as a binding agent with medical applications and as an ingredient of lacquer. The flames then spread to illegal stores of the combustible fertilizer ammonium nitrate, touching off two massive explosions.

The 165 people killed in the Aug. 12 blasts in Tianjin included 99 firefighters who responded to the fire and 11 police officers. Eight more people went missing, and 798 were injured.

Investigators previously have ruled that regulators failed to enforce safety rules, including keeping hazardous materials at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouses a proper distance away from residences. Authorities arrested several dozen people, including warehouse executives and local government officials.

The investigators said stocks of nitrocellulose at the Ruihai warehouses became too dry because of the loss of humidifying agents, and began to heat up in the hot summer weather. The material then started to burn, they said.

The official report did not explain the high casualties among firefighters, but Du Lanping, a leading investigator, told state broadcaster CCTV that firefighters were not informed of the existence of the 800 tons of ammonium nitrate.

“The key is that ammonium nitrate was not supposed to be stored there at all,” she said. “Then, the firefighters were not told of its existence, so the commanders could not make sufficient risk assessments.”

When the chemical exploded, the firefighters were too close to evacuate safely, Du said.

The investigators said Ruihai ignored many safety precautions and its safety management was “extremely chaotic.” Investigators blamed local officials for failing to enforce safety rules and provide adequate supervision.

“If the proper approval procedures had been followed, Ruihai would have never been allowed to exist in the first place,” another leading investigator, Li Wanchun, told CCTV.

Ruihai falsely claimed that it would store common goods when it applied for planning approval, and it colluded with corrupt officials to clear hurdles for the construction of its facilities, Li said.

Ruihai executives bribed government officials on golf courses and over dinner tables for the necessary approval papers, he said.

After Ruihai began operating the warehouses, it stored hazardous materials without a license, stockpiled prohibited materials, and stored chemicals in excessive amounts, Li said.

About 10 government agencies could have detected the illegal storage of ammonium nitrate, but none did, Li said.

“No one made any noise. No one performed supervision,” Li said. “We say all these agencies have an obligation, but our investigation found none of these departments fulfilled its duties and obligations.”

“If normal day-to-day supervision had been performed, Ruihai should not have and would not have become an out-of-control bundle of explosives,” he said.

The blasts caused air, water, and soil pollution in the region but did not affect the environmental quality of the ocean bay on which Tianjin sits, the investigators said.