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China quake hits chemical industry


16 May 2008

By Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

 

China's biggest earthquake in over 30 years has hit the country's fertiliser producers, sending authorities rushing to contain chemical leaks and protect water supplies.

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit the province of Sichuan at 2.28pm on 12 May and, as Chemistry World went to press, had caused over 20,000 deaths with thousands more still missing. It was felt in most parts of China, and in Southeast Asian countries up to 2000km away from the epicentre, located 90km northwest of the province's capital city Chengdu, Wenchuan county.

Devastation

Sichuan accounted for 7 per cent of China's chemical fertiliser output in 2007. Sichuan Chemicals and Sichuan Meifeng Chemical, two of China's leading chemical fertiliser firms, have halted production at their carbamide production facilities near the epicentre, amidst safety concerns.

In Shifang city, 50km east of the epicentre, two fertiliser plants were destroyed by the quake, releasing 80 tonnes of liquid ammonia. Local residents were quickly evacuated and the leaks brought under control, but up to 100 plant workers may have been buried in the wreckage.

Buildings destroyed in Chinese earthquake

The earthquake has devastated China's Sichuan province

© AP Photos

A number of phosphorous mines in Qingping, 100km from the epicentre, also collapsed, burying hundreds of miners. Most of the major phosphorous mines in the area belong to the China National Chemical Corporation (ChemChina), China's biggest fertiliser producer.

Environmental concerns

China's Ministry of Environmental Protection and the State Administration of Work Safety sent experts and officials to Sichuan within hours of the quake. 

On 14 May, the ministry and the local government announced that no significant change in the quality of drinking water had been detected. While two sampling sites close to the damaged fertilizer plants in Shifang had revealed small increases in the levels of ammonia and nitrogen, water from the area would still be safe to drink after processing.

Despite their efforts, however, rumours that a reservoir in Dujiangyan, 50 km away from the epicentre, may have been contaminated sent residents of Chengdu and nearby towns rushing to buy bottled water.

Chunlin Sun, an editor of the journal Chemical Safety & Environment, which is affiliated to the China National Chemical Information Centre, says that the government now must look again at building regulations for chemical plants. 

'The current safety rules cover site selection and equipment, but the structural regulations for chemical plants must be better than those governing other buildings so that they are more resistant to natural disasters,' Sun told Chemistry World.

She worries that, once reconstruction begins, new chemical plants will not be built to higher standards.

Water chemistry

Meanwhile, as government agencies have stepped up efforts to prevent water contamination, Chinese geochemists are calling for more studies looking at the effects of earthquakes on water chemistry.

Lihai Zhang and colleagues of the Ministry of Land and Resources' Geological Samples Centre, have detected changes in the levels of chemicals, including radon and boron, in underground water close to the sites of earthquakes that have hit China over the past 40 years.

'We don't yet know whether abnormal levels of these chemicals have a direct link to the safety of drinking water because they're not regularly monitored and little funding has been awarded to support research in the area,' Zhang told Chemistry World.

Water from sites as far away as 600km from earthquake epicentres have been found to contain elevated levels of radon up to two years before an earthquake hits, Zhang says. Carefully monitoring radon levels could help to predict where and when earthquakes might occur in future. 'With more regular sampling and monitoring, it could become a promising supplement to the dominant physical tools [for earthquake prediction] such as detecting seismological waves,' he adds.

Hard times

The quake is likely to hit Chinese fertiliser production hard, according to analyst Yong Deng at Shanghai-based Haitong Securities. That is likely to send domestic fertiliser prices - already high due to the soaring costs of raw materials - even higher. Massive disruption to the province's transport links will also hit fertiliser supplies, Deng believes, pushing prices up further in the short-term.

But Jing Wang, a petrochemical analyst at Shanghai-based Oriental Securities, notes that the earthquake may not affect fertiliser prices because much of the area hit by the earthquake is farmland. 'While output will be hit, demand could also plummet,' she says.

She believes that the rest of the country's chemical sector could come through relatively unscathed. 'Chemical industries are not heavily concentrated in areas mostly seriously affected by the earthquake, so I think there will not be extremely serious repercussions for the sector,' says Wang.

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