By Staff Reporter Ouyang Hongliang
On May 16, I arrived in Shifang, a small city in the quake-hit Wenchuan area. In an interview with local residents, I learned that two local chemical fertilizer plants had been badly damaged, which caused the burning of stored sulfur and the release of liquid ammonia and sulfuric acid. The environmental impact of the incident is unclear as of yet.
Shifang is situated in a region with bordering Deyang to the northeast and Chengdu to the southeast. Known as “the pearl of western Sichuan,” Shifang is rich in natural resources and endowed with beautiful landscape.
I went to the workshop area of a local fertilizer factory Yingfeng Industrial Co. Ltd. in the afternoon. What I saw there was a mess left over by the quake.
Workers from this factory said that shortly after the quake, the sulfur stored in one of the workshops caught on fire and kept burning for two days. Only one or two tons of at least thousands have so far been consumed. The location of the fire was close to a local oil bunker.
A villager named Wu Dequn recalled the fearful moment. He was working in the factory when the earthquake came. He and a bunch of his colleagues immediately escaped into the open, then saw heavy smoke rising inside. About ten minutes later, the sulfur started to burn.
Another villager who wanted to remain anonymous told me that when the sulfur was burning, heavy smoke from the fire almost covered the sky in an ominous scene. He stood on the street outside and was only about 100 meters away from the workshop but could not make it out while Longmen Mountain right ahead was totally obscured by the thick smoke.
What made things even worse was the leaking liquid ammonia. A short while after the sulfur caught on fire, a pungent smell began to fill the air. Most local villagers worked in the factory, so they could easily recognize the smell of ammonia. People fled the village by any available vehicle until they reached a square in Shifang city where they regrouped.
I visited the company’s liquid ammonia storage, finding two tanks for the chemical. The big one can hold up to 1,000 cubic meters, while the capacity of the small one is 100 cubic meters. The tank monitor, Gao Xinghua, said that after the quake, pipes connecting the pumps cracked and all the liquid ammonia leaked out.
Another accident was at a fertilizer plant rented by Sichuan Hongda Chemical Industry Co. (SSE: 600331). It’s about 100 meters away from Yingfeng and used to be a phosphate fertilizer factory. Sulfur burning, liquid ammonia and sulfuric acid leaking also took place here after the earthquake. A worker from this factory told me around 150 tons of liquid ammonia had leaked out. The earthquake also broke the sulfuric acid tanks and at least a thousand tons of sulfuric acid leaked out from the bottom into the soil.
I saw in both plants that a great amount of equipment and many pipes were destroyed, from which some poisonous substance was still leaking. The irritating smell of sulfur and liquid ammonia permeated the air, blowing everywhere through the wind.
These problems have not yet had a deadly impact on the local people. But one thing for sure was that vegetation around the area has already been poisoned by chemicals. On my way to Renhe village, I noticed the withered and yellow leaves of the trees lined beside the road, and the foliage on the mountains nearby had all turned yellow.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a related report May 14 and local environmental protection departments quickly sent for people to manage the situation. A preliminary examination of water and air did not discover serious problems. But the situation remains that with continuous aftershocks, chemicals are still leaking after May 14.
So far no updated reports about chemical leaks and environmental impacts have been released by the ministry.
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