Ignoring the Warnings
When local officials first recruited him as an adviser nearly a decade ago, Shao Chaofeng saw a chance to show that his ideas for energy-efficient and ecologically sound growth could find a home among the smokestacks and cranes of the Binhai economic zone.
A young environmental engineer on the faculty at Nankai University in Tianjin, Professor Shao drafted dozens of papers setting out ideas for industrial development free of the haze, toxins and water pollution that have blighted much of eastern China.
"Initially, people paid attention," he recalled.
But if Professor Shao was at first inspired by the prospect of a "new Binhai," he finished his years of work on the district increasingly troubled. Officials were piling on one industrial project after another, sometimes dangerously close to schools and residential neighborhoods.
As early as 2008, he and other academics in Tianjin warned in a paper of the strain on the environment, citing the risks posed by the chemical industry in particular. An accident or spill, they said, could devastate the region.
Two years later, he and Sun Xiaorong, of the Tianjin Appraisal Center for Environment and Engineering, published another paper with models calculating that the risks of an accident in Binhai were growing and could peak in 2015.
"The rapid development of industry, especially petroleum and chemical industries, have greatly increased major environmental risks in the Binhai New Area," they wrote. "But at the same time, environmental risk management standards in the district have not undergone timely and effective improvement."
Officials were not hostile to his proposals, Professor Shao said, but many seemed overwhelmed by the pressure to build up the economic zone, and there were frequent reshuffles of personnel.
With huge oil refineries, ethane plants and other petrochemical projects, Binhai would quickly become China's largest chemical-industry park. Spurred by a national drive to build self-sufficiency in chemicals, the industry was growing at an annual rate of 10 percent and contributing as much as $600 billion to gross domestic product.
By about 2011, Professor Shao's government consultancy work on Binhai had dried up.
But he continued raising alarms. In a paper in 2013, he and four co-authors warned that the risk of an accident related to the "storage and transportation" of chemicals in Binhai was increasing. They identified high-risk zones on color-coded maps, including one that highlighted the area housing Rui Hai and other facilities.
Professor Shao and his co-authors were not alone. In a paper published late last year, a group of researchers at the Tianjin Marine Environment Monitoring and Forecasting Center issued a similar warning. "There have been constant incidents of pollution from the storage and transport of these chemicals, severely threatening the life, property and health of people in the area," they wrote.
Based on incomplete statistics, they counted 84 instances of pollution at the port between 1998 and 2012, most of them attributed to "operational" failings. Yet, they noted, the government planned to develop the shipping of chemicals as a "main pillar" of the port's growth.
Professor Shao was away on business when he heard the news of the explosions. Reached by telephone a few days later, he recalled feeling stricken by regret.
"I felt deeply pained in my heart," he said. "I felt there were many things that could have been … " His voice petered off.
He said he and the others who built the risk model that forecast trouble in 2015 had never anticipated that a company would store such vast amounts of hazardous chemicals so close to a residential area.
"Such a large quantity of dangerous chemicals — it was just too much — should never have been placed in what was quite a central location," he said. "Even if it wasn't a residential district, even on the edge of the city, this was wrong."
"危化产品那么大的量 —— 那个量太大了—— 不应该在那样一个比较核心的地方，"他说。"即使不是有一个住宅区，在城区边上，那样的也不行。这么多危险化学品，太多了，不应该放在中心场所。"