It seems like we’re going through another round of Chinese industrial accidents, each worse than the last. In fact, they are becoming so common that an accident which might be judged major under normal circumstances, now receives almost no coverage due to the much larger accidents. Case in point: on Sunday, an aluminum plant exploded in Shandong, yet most of the day’s disaster coverage was focused on the Xintai mine tragedy.
The essence of the aluminum disaster, according to Shanghai Daily, is this: 9 workers were killed, and 64 injured [the numbers have since risen], when (what sounds like) a cauldron of molten aluminum encountered a cooling pond at a factory owned by the Shandong Weiqiao Group in Zouping County. An additional Shanghai Daily story, filed on the same day, reported:
“The flow shattered windows of the 45-meter-long, 27-meter-wide and eight-meter-tall workshop, lifted the building’s roof and left cracks on the walls …”
The photo and the dimensions quoted in the second Daily story do not suggest the small, wildcat operations typically involved in Chinese industrial accidents (and subtly hinted at in the Daily story). As it happens, I have been covering extractive and secondary metal industries in China for several years now, and the Shandong plant – as described and photographed – immediately struck me as being a large, modern facility.
This wasn’t hard to confirm.
According to the company website, the Binzhou Weiqiao Aluminum Company began producing electrolytic aluminum in July 2003, and it currently has production capacity for 250,000 metric tons of aluminum products per year. That makes the Binzhou facility one of the largest aluminum manufacturers in China [in 2006, China produced a total of 815. million metric tons of aluminum products] and – it so happens – the world. The equipment described on the company’s website, as well as the staff (567 employees, including “30 various technicians”) also suggests a technologically modern facility, and one that should have a significant degree of automation and safety redundancy [I've seen such plants in the developed world AND in China]. At the very least, as described, it is not the kind of plant where worker error leads to an explosion that literally lifts the roof off the building.
And yet, in the aftermath of the explosion, that is precisely how Shandong’s safety “watchdog” is characterizing the accident:
JINAN – Workers’ negligence has been blamed for the molten aluminium spill that killed 14 and injured 59 at a factory in East China’s Shandong Province on Sunday, the provincial work safety watchdog said on Tuesday.
The inner lining of an aluminium container at the factory in Zouping County fell off because it was mishandled by workers, which led to the spillage of aluminium at a temperature of 900 degrees Celsius, the Shandong Provincial Work Safety Bureau said.
Now, admittedly, the story is so vague (lining? container? huh?) as to defy a simple repudiation (and, considering the state of the factory as depicted in the post-explosion photo, it seems unlikely that safety inspectors could determine the cause so quickly, if at all). But suffice it to say that cauldrons capable of being mis-handled haven’t been features of technologically sophisticated aluminum plants in many years. That is to say, the local government’s explanation is absurd. Large, modern aluminum plants don’t explode because someone failed to replace a liner. If worker error was responsible for the accident, that error could only have occurred if there was a fatal design or safety flaw in the plant itself.
It’s no surprise that the Shandong safety authorities would quickly act to protect a large (partly state-owned) employer from having to take responsibility for a large industrial accident (see: Xintai mining disaster). What is surprising – or at least, novel – is the approach that they take in this case, tacitly suggesting that one of the China’s largest aluminum producers was actually operating like a wildcatter.
Below, a photo of the plant before it exploded on Sunday.
[Update 8/27: A reader emailed to note that the Binzhou facility is one of many factories owned by the Shandong Weiqiao Aluminum and Power Company. This is quite right, and according to the company website, the company is a "super grand multiple-producing factory combining thermoelectricity, alumina, electrolytic aluminum, and aluminum deep progressing." In other words, it is big. I've just emailed a source in Beijing who might be able to provide some insight into the overall scale of the company; if I get a helpful reply, I'll post the information here.]
[UPDATE: 8/29: China's State Administration of Work Safety has announced that the plant explosion was a result of design flaws, thus repudiating the claims of "human error" made by the Shandong authorities. Additional information can be found in a new post to Shanghai Scrap.]