11 arrests over Chinese warehouse explosion

A shattered window frames the site of the explosion on 12 August at a factory handling dangerous chemicals. Picture: AP
A shattered window frames the site of the explosion on 12 August at a factory handling dangerous chemicals. Picture: AP
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CHINESE prosecutors have detained 11 government officials and company executives over a massive warehouse explosion that killed at least 145 people in the country’s worst industrial disaster in recent years.

A notice on the national prosecutor’s website said they included current and retired officials in the city of Tianjin, along with others working for the company that runs its port, the largest in northern China.

All the government officials are accused of dereliction of duty and abusing their positions. They are from agencies overseeing transportation, port operations, workplace safety, planning and land resources, and customs. The notice points to a charge that the dereliction of duty was widespread and included several departments.

The 11 officials include Wu Dai, the head of Tianjin’s transportation commission, and Zheng Qingyue, the boss of the city’s port operator.

Prosecutors said the government officials were variously suspected of approving Ruihai’s bid to build a hazardous chemical warehouse in the port despite knowing the location broke safety regulations, and of helping the company to pass safety checks even though it did not meet the required standards.

Port officials were also negligent in their supervision of Ruihai’s operations, the statement said, failing to detect “illegal activity”, and there were safety issues around its handling of hazardous materials.

Prosecutors have also named all 12 company executives who had previously been formally detained. Among them is Ruihai’s chairman, Yu Xuewei, and vice-chairman, Dong Shexuan, as well as managers from the safety, finance, and operations departments.

Zeng Fanqiang, an evaluator from Tianjin Binhai Haisheng, which conducts safety checks, was detained as well.

The statement said the 12 executives were suspected of “being heavily responsible for the incident and of illegally storing hazardous chemicals”.

The 12 August explosions at the warehouse owned by Ruihai Logistics were not only one of China’s worst accidents but the deadliest ever for first responders, with 115 police and firefighters among the dead and missing.

The investigation has focused on how the warehouse gained permission to handle sodium cyanide and other dangerous chemicals despite being located inside a legally-mandated 1,000-yard buffer zone around homes and roads. The investigation has also found that the warehouse was storing more chemicals than it was equipped to handle and had kept some in a loading zone rather than storing them securely.

The responsible parties “failed to take strong measures in response to the Ruihai company’s illegal and unregulated actions, did not assiduously carry out their duties and issued business permits in violations of rules,” the prosecutor’s notice said.

News of the charges comes days after China’s work safety regulator, Yang Dongliang, was sacked for “serious breaches of discipline and the law”.