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Tianjin Disaster Magnifies Governance Challenges for Public Safety and the Environment

The recent chemical explosion at a Chinese warehouse continues to reverberate around the world. The blast killed at least 158 people in Tianjin, injured hundreds, damaged and destroyed homes, and caused nearby companies to suspend operations. Officials say that the warehouse owned by Rui Hai International Logistics was located less than one kilometer from residential buildings and contained roughly 3,000 tons of highly toxic chemicals, a violation of China’s national environmental standard on hazardous materials.

WRI experts in the US and China have used local media and other public sources to try to uncover what happened. Amplifying the tragedy is that it was preventable. Beyond the immediate causes of the explosion, it is clear that a breakdown of environmental governance—including poor transparency, corrupt oversight, and insufficient public engagement—increased the risk of exposure to the chemical blast. This is a setback for a government that has made improved governance a central theme of its recent “War on Pollution” efforts, but it offers key lessons on how better implementation of governance reforms could safeguard against future incidents.

What are the challenges?

In 2014, China significantly amended its Environmental Protection Law (EPL) for the first time since it was passed in 1989. The revisions emphasize increased information disclosure and public participation, enhanced public oversight and strengthened enforcement mechanisms.

Polluting entities are now required to disclose the nature, quantity and concentration of their pollutants. Government authorities must disseminate this information to the public. And local authorities must publicly release information on environmental licensing, administrative penalties and the collection and use of pollution fees. Construction projects and development plans cannot be implemented until an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been completed, and potentially affected citizens must be informed and given an opportunity to provide feedback. The new law also strengthens protections for environmental whistleblowers, and allows organizations to take polluters to court.

Yet despite recent steps toward strengthening environmental laws in the country, the Tianjin disaster reveals shortcomings in actually implementing these improvements, including insufficient proactive disclosure of toxic chemical storage, corruption, and a lack of public engagement.

Insufficient Proactive Disclosure

China has yet to fully implement a reliable system of monitoring and disclosing information on toxic chemical storage and release. That, along with a poor safety record at Tianjin and other sites that store dangerous chemicals, leaves the public and the environment at risk of pollution.

The issue of disclosing chemical storage site information is not unique to China—even in the United States, which has a long-established Toxic Release Inventory and risk-management program for chemical safety, it can be challenging for the general public to determine where dangerous chemicals are being stored in large quantities. However, the rate of industrialization in China and the number of deadly accidents in recent years have drawn attention to industry governance.

China could help address this shortcoming by joining nearly 50 other countries in establishing a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) to monitor and report on pollutants and chemical substances, as well as establishing an emergency planning system like the U.S. Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. This law created a system to disseminate information to the public on any potential risks and precautionary measures when accidents like chemical spills occur. When this type of information is restricted or censored during environmental emergencies, the public may lack critical information to protect their health, or may be distrustful of information that is released.

Corruption and a Lack of Public Engagement

As the Xinhua state news agency reported, Rui Hai executives admitted to using political connections to ensure that licenses for their warehouse would be approved. China’s Environmental Impact law and Administrative Licensing law require government authorities to organize public hearings before licenses and permits are granted, or before projects with potentially significant environmental impacts are approved. Still other laws require that companies disclose Environmental Impact Assessments for their construction projects.

Yet none of these laws were sufficiently upheld in the case of Rui Hai. According to several sources, the Rui Hai environmental impact assessment was not publicly accessible until it was acquired by journalists. The EIA revealed that the consulting firm Rui Hai contracted to conduct the EIA collected only 128 responses, a sample considered too small for the population affected. While the EIA report claimed that the public surveyed unanimously supported the construction of the site, interviews conducted by Xinhua with nearby residents dispute that claim. A healthy public debate about risks associated with such a storage facility, as well as more rigorous regulatory oversight, might have led to implementation of more effective measures to prevent such an incident.

Strengthening Environmental Laws and Implementation in China

While the increased emphasis on environmental governance in China’s revised Environmental Protection Law is a welcome development, the Tianjin disaster highlighted how critical oversight, enforcement, and monitoring of corruption will be for regulations to achieve their intended impact. Communities and environmental NGOs can play a role in monitoring if relevant information is disclosed in a timely manner in formats that are usable by the public. By strengthening laws and improving implementation for disclosure of toxic chemical sites—as well as ensuring space for civil society to monitor, participate and seek justice for wrongdoing—China can better protect its communities and its environment.

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