Site of the 2015 Tianjin Port Explosions

Site of the 2015 Tianjin Port Explosions

Source: Background map from Google Earth, February 2015.

Ports are significant consumers of land involving terminal operations and port-centric logistics activities, which are generating large volumes of cargo flows and the need to store this cargo temporarily. The port of Tianjin is the third-largest in the world in terms of tonnage and the 10th largest in terms of container volumes. It is a massive industrial and petrochemical complex accounting for about 40% of all Chinese vehicle imports and exports.

On August 12, 2015, two subsequent explosions at the Ruihai Logistics facilities dedicated to storing and handling hazardous materials took place. The outcome of the blasts was the complete destruction of adjacent facilities and their stored cargo (mostly container yards and automotive storage facilities that involved close to 10,000 destroyed or damaged vehicles). Significant damage within a radius of 1 km (or more) also took place depending on how the infrastructure was positioned in relation to the explosions (such as blasted windows and damaged roofs on more than 17,000 housing units). A rail transit station on the other side of an adjacent major highway was also severely damaged, and the transit line it serviced was closed. More than one hundred people were killed by the blast, including firefighters that were on site trying to extinguish the fires. The port terminals were not damaged by the explosions, which took place in an area dominated by logistical activities (particularly empty container depots) as well as automotive storage. Port activities were shut down for a day but resumed afterward, with the movement of chemical cargoes severely restricted.

The industrial incident triggered serious concerns because of large amounts of sodium cyanide being stored on-site at the time of the explosion, which involved the risk of contamination and permanent evacuation for nearby residential areas. Several compounding factors have exacerbated the severity of the incident to the level of a transportation disaster.

  • Improper handling of the cargo before and during the incident. The cause of the fire that triggered the explosion is the outcome of a failure in properly handling hazardous materials. The situation was exacerbated by firefighters not well informed about the chemicals stored on site.
  • Lack of knowledge by the authorities of the nature and quantity of the hazardous materials being stored on site. The land where the hazardous materials were stored is leased from the port authority of Tianjin and subject to standard regulations and reporting related to industrial land use. However, Ruihai Logistics did not fully comply with such regulations, which in turn were not fully enforced by local authorities. There were substantially more hazardous materials stored on-site than reported. The port oversees thousands of tenants operating very different activities, and the fast growth of the port of Tianjin in recent years (as well as for Chinese ports) has made port management increasingly complex. Further, a slowdown of the Chinese economy, particularly in the mining sector, incited higher inventory levels of several chemicals on-site due to an unexpected decline in demand.
  • Incompatible land uses in the port area. Under normal circumstances, residential areas and freight intensive activities are not compatible and should not be located in proximity. As the above map illustrates, there are significant residential areas in close proximity to the hazardous materials site. This proximity conflicts with Chinese environmental law that states that hazardous materials facilities must be at least 3,200 feet (975 meters) from residential areas. The site was approved for handling hazardous materials only a few months before the explosion, implying that it has been operating informally beforehand.

The economic consequences of this industrial accident were limited. The port’s major infrastructures were unaffected, and the area where the disaster took place was dominantly devoted to container storage, stuffing, and de-stuffing as well as automotive storage. These activities can be relocated relatively easily and are not particularly capital intensive (their major inputs are space and labor). Still, the port temporarily lost a share of its logistical capabilities of its port-centric logistics zones.

More complex is the outcome on neighboring residential and commercial activities (including a civic center and a major sports stadium). The industrial accident underlines the complexity of port and logistical operations and the risk related to the storage of hazardous materials in such a setting.