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Clean-up underway after 150,000 flee gas leak
Updated: 2004-04-18 11:40

Air quality returned to normal after a chlorine gas leak in southwest China forced the evacuation of 150,000 people and left nine dead or missing, officials said.

Firefighters battled overnight to clean up the leak at the Tianyuan Chemical Industry Plant in downtown Chongqing municipality, which began Thursday night but was worsened by powerful explosions late Friday.

A senior resident is rushed to the hospital after explosions and a leak of chlorine gas in a chemical plant in Jiangbei District of Chongqing April 16, 2004.[newsphoto]

Residents within a three-kilometre (1.86 miles) radius of the plant were evacuated from the densely populated area, but most had been allowed home Saturday, Xinhua news agency said.

The incident comes just four months after 243 people were killed by poisoned gas near Chongqing in the worst known industrial accident since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

By early Saturday, little chlorine was smelled around the plant involved in the latest incident and the air was considered safe, local officials said.

"Yesterday night beginning at 10:00 pm, Chongqing city environmental protection bureau and various districts' environmental protection bureaus inspected the air, including in the plant and surrounding areas," a Jiangbei district government official told AFP.

"This morning at 9:00 am (0100 GMT), they reported to the district government that the air is no longer harmful."

"But the alarm has not been lifted," she said.

Experts were continuing to deal with disaster relief work and were investigating the cause of the leak.

"We still haven't found the nine dead or missing," a district official told reporters.

Of the nine, eight are the company's managers and the other is a worker, according to Xinhua.

They include Ran Zhengbi, the plant's deputy communist party secretary and Ye Zhonghui, deputy director of the plant, Xinhua said.

The director of the safety and environment protection bureau of the plant was also listed as a victim. Three people were reported as injured by Xinhua.

Newspapers Saturday showed doctors wearing simple cloth face masks helping residents, while emergency crews donned breathing apparatus and oxygen tanks to go into the accident site.

Firefighters spent Friday night and Saturday spraying sodium hydroxide liquid in the plant to neutralize the chlorine gas.

The local water supply had been tested and found to be not polluted, Xinhua said.

The explosions happened after company officials tried to empty several leaking chlorine tanks by pumping the chlorine out instead of releasing it naturally through iron pipes, which caused the temperature in the tanks to rise, leading to the blasts, Xinhua had quoted the director of the rescue team saying.

Late Friday, people living more than 500 metres (yards) from the plant were allowed to return home but 30,000 evacuees spent the night in tents at places such as schools.

In December, a massive blast near Chongqing city released a cloud of toxic gas which killed 243 and poisoned thousands more, forcing the evacuation of 60,000 people living nearby.

Company officials did not immediately alert authorities, delaying evacuations and causing more deaths.

Officials appeared to have learned from that disaster, quickly evacuating residents in the latest incident.

Inhaling 2.5 milligrams of chlorine gas is enough to cause death and symptoms of inhalation include bronchial spasm, and respiratory difficulty.

It was the third chlorine gas leak at the plant since last year, an unnamed plant worker was quoted by Xinhua saying.

Sources said the municipal government had planned to move the chemical plant, which employed about 2,000 workers, from downtown areas to Wanzhou district, a new city zone located in the Three Gorges Reservoir area.

Storage tanks to be denoted

The city is ready to detonate on Sunday the remaining three chlorine gas storage tanks at the plant.

To prevent the remaining furnaces from continuing leaking chlorine gas, the city has decided to detonate them by Sunday noon, according to local officials.

A crew of 160 from the municipal fire brigade have been arranged in preparation for the upcoming furnace denotation. About3,000 policemen have been motivated to keep order in areas around the site.

After the gas leak and blasts, the municipal envoironmental protection administration and water supply group have kept monitoring the air and water quality of Chongqing. Sources with them say that on Sunday morning, the air quality was normal and nothing abnormal was found in the downstream section of the Jianglingjiang River near the chemical plant.

Violations of operating rules by workers and outdated furnaces could be blamed for the chlorine leak and explosions, sources say

Premier: Further leaks should be avoided

Premier Wen Jiabao gave instructions Saturday for effective measures to be taken to eradicate any hidden dangers from the chlorine leak accident in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.

Further leaks or blasts should be avoided to ensure rescuers' safety and the injured should be rescued at all costs, the premier said.

Residents living near the accident site should be relocated properly and provided with enough daily necessities to maintain stable social order and experts from the state safety supervision department should be sent to the accident site to join the rescue work, he said.

Environment inspection should be strengthened and all possible measures should be taken to make clear the causes of the accident and guard against any hidden dangers, Wen added.

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