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Anxiety, Distrust And Uncertainty

Aug. 28, 2015

It's been 2 weeks since massive explosions rocked Tianjin in northern China. Chinese authorities say they'll beef up the country's industrial safety measures in response to the chemical blasts in warehouses at the port. The explosions shortly before midnight on August 12th shocked the nation. At least 146 people have been confirmed dead and 27 are missing.

Investigators say the chemicals that blew up were stored in the warehouses illegally. But they're still struggling to find out what caused the explosions. Our reporter Takafumi Terui went to see how residents and authorities are coping with the situation.

Earlier this week, we visited the port city of Tianjin to check on the situation 2 weeks after the incident.

A modern 5-story building is close to the blast site. There was no sign of anyone either using it or doing any repair work. Other buildings still bore evidence of the extensive damage.

The explosions occurred at a warehouse complex near Tianjin Port. City government officials say that the complex was storing about 2,500 tons of toxic chemicals. Among the roughly 40 substances kept there were sodium cyanide and ammonium nitrate, which is used in making bombs. The blasts were so severe that they damaged buildings several kilometers away.

Authorities have cordoned off the area. We were within 2 kilometers of the site. Unauthorized entry is strictly prohibited. Trucks could be seen carrying damaged containers out of the restricted area one after another. We spent about 15 minutes filming around the area. As we drove away, firefighters sprayed our car with water. The same thing happened to every car in this area -- probably to prevent contamination by toxic substances from spreading.

Residential buildings also suffered damage in the explosion. People are returning from the places where they took shelter to pick up their belongings. Some of them have found new accommodation because they don't want to continue living there. One resident says the government compensation isn't enough, as it doesn't even cover half her rent.

Fear of contamination is also affecting commercial activities. A fish market about 7 kilometers from the site used to be crowded with customers before the explosion. But now it's deserted.

A worker at one of the fish shops says sales have dropped 75 percent. Another says people are spreading rumors that the seafood might be contaminated, which he says isn't true.

The city center is about 40 kilometers from where the explosions occurred. Here, people seem to be going about their daily lives as usual. A resident says he isn't affected, as he lives in the city.

But some people are worried that the chemicals might already have spread out over a wide area. A woman says she felt like the rain was burning her skin. Anxiety is particularly strong among mothers, like this woman, who is expecting a baby next month. She says there are scary rumors on the Internet. She says it's hard to tell what's true, as the government hasn't provided a clear explanation.

The explosions shook residents of Tianjin out of their sleep. Two weeks later, the shock waves continue to reverberate, through many aspects of the city's life.

Reporter Takafumi Terui joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu from Beijing.

Shibuya: Takafumi, you were at the site right after the explosions and you just looked back. Did you see any recovery work going on?

Terui: We drove through an area within a few kilometers of the site, but no repair work appeared to be in progress. We saw very few people on the streets. We did see some cars, but it was still like a ghost town. Air contamination is invisible, so residents seem worried. Tianjin city officials are monitoring pollutants in the air and water around the site, and releasing the results several times a day in an apparent bid to ease concerns.

Beppu: Tianjin is a major trading port that is close to the capital, Beijing. How about the trading activities-- are they still being affected by this?

Terui: Yes, but it looks like things are beginning to get back to normal. The port plays an important role in global trade. It handled 540 million tons of cargo last year, making it the nation's third busiest port. I spoke with the head of Japan's trade organization in Beijing. I asked him about the economic impact of the blasts on the port.

“Customs operations are returning to normal. But as roads are partially closed off, the process is still taking more time than usual due to traffic jams. Currently, automobiles and hazardous chemicals cannot be discharged at the port. So companies shipping such products are considering using other ports, or have already begun to do so.”
Yoshihisa Tabata, Director-General, JETRO Beijing Office

Terui: Similar explosions have occurred -- one at a chemical plant in nearby Shandong Province about a week ago. These incidents have prompted China's top leaders to take action. State-run media reported on Thursday that prosecutors have detained 11 people, including senior Tianjin city officials, for negligence or abuse of power. Top leaders are apparently handling the matter with caution so that public criticisms over the explosions won't be directed toward the party or the central government.