Cleanup helps restore confidence in Tianjin

On the night of August 12 to 13, 2015, a powerful explosion swept through the chemical warehouses of the Chinese port of Tianjin and the surrounding residences. Concerned about imminent widescale toxic pollution, the authorities turned to Veolia, a locally established company renowned for its expertise in hazardous waste treatment. In total, the Group would collect and treat over 10,000 tons of polluted wastewater in just a few weeks.
The essential
 A race against the clock to manage secondary pollution following a major chemical port explosion
Assess, analyze and contain immediate hazards; transport and treat hazardous chemicals safely and expertly to ensure discharge compliance
Veolia's response
Over a period of six months, Veolia collected, transformed and treated over 10.000 tons of toxic sodium cyanide wastewater
Published in the dossier of January 2017

It’s hard to imagine the thoughts of emergency workers as they raced toward the blast site, following news of a resounding explosion in Tianjin on August 12, 2015. While the specific environmental dangers were not clear in the minutes following the incident, those with experience in hazardous waste knew to expect a serious challenge: two blasts had ripped through one of the six massive container terminals comprising Tianjin port, the maritime gateway which lies at the epicenter of China’s chemical industry and deals with a large throughput of dangerous chemicals daily.

A team headed by Cai Ling, General Manager of Veolia’s Hazardous Waste Integrated Treatment Center in Tianjin, was on the scene within hours of the news. “The first thing that came to my mind was the environmental impact the blast would bring if cleanup and treatment were not done in time, considering the hazardous chemicals that were stored at the location,” says Cai Ling.
Veolia offers the most comprehensive hazardous waste treatment facilities in Tianjin, licensed to treat 48 of the 49 hazardous materials classified by the government (explosives are excluded from the facility’s scope), and would play a key role in the emergency cleanup operation. “We immediately began planning and making arrangements for related equipment, personnel and vehicles to assist in disaster relief operations,” says Cai Ling.

As cleanup crews began arriving on the scene, the landscape was foreboding: over 111 types of hazardous cargo had been stored within the 54,000-m2 immediate blast zone, including 800 metric tons of ammonium nitrate and 700 metric tons of scattered sodium cyanide. Burst water mains brought the fear of the chemicals spreading through the soil, and raised the issue of potential contamination of the city’s water supplies. The government decided to seal off the explosion core area, require official permits for entry and impose hosing down for exit: authorities then commissioned several trusted firms, including Veolia, with the mammoth task of preventing a major environmental disaster.

Tackling the toughest jobs

Veolia’s Hazardous Waste Integrated Treatment Center in Tianjin has over 15 years of professional experience in operational management of hazardous waste and its facilities were dealing with cyanide-contaminated wastewater on a daily basis: but the scale of the Tianjin cleanup was unprecedented. For Veolia, the work in cleaning up an estimated 10.000 of tons of contaminated wastewater and scattered sodium cyanide from the disaster was rigorous and time-consuming.

“The wastewater from the blast site was widely dispersed and the harsh terrain at the scene added much difficulty to the collection and cleanup work,” says Cai Ling. After collection, the cyanide wastewater was transported by dedicated transport vehicles to the company’s two facilities – Phase 1 and Phase 2 – for treatment.

Each batch of wastewater collected from the blast site needed to undergo in-depth laboratory analyses and tests. An action plan was derived from the detailed data obtained from these analyses, and the cyanide wastewater was then treated, according to levels of concentration, by mature technologies including incineration or physico-chemical treatment. 

Properly treated and handled under the guidance of the technical team, Veolia guaranteed strict discharge compliance with local environmental regulations. The work took around six months and was completed in early 2016.

Tianjin’s role

Tianjin’s Binhai New Area – where the explosions took place on August 12, 2015 – has played a leading role in the transformation of the Chinese chemical industry, with billions of dollars invested and leading enterprises building advanced new plants. Within a year of its creation, 285 Fortune Global 500 companies had invested in the special zone, creating a center for China’s advanced industrial reform and innovation.
Veolia is one of the companies that have contributed to this transformation. The Group provides high quality water and waste solutions for a number of chemical companies in Binhai New Area and more widely across Northern China.
Technical know-how is, of course, one reason for Veolia’s success, but the company’s global culture of health and safety is attractive to local authorities and companies under China’s modern approach to industry and environment in this pristine industrial hub. 

The risks of progress


Sodium Cyanide

Sodium cyanide is one of the most deadly poisons known to mankind. A potent inhibitor of oxygen transport, even tiny doses can suffocate living organisms to a quick death – and with a fatal dose measured in milligrams, the slightest release requires rapid response to avoid an environmental catastrophe.

Over the past decade, China has developed one of the most stringent environmental regulatory frameworks in the world. Industrial water treatment, for example, illustrates this evolution. According to the firm KPMG, the water treatment chemicals market in China is expected to be worth US$ 3.3 billion per year by 2018.  Water laws have become ever stricter since the passing of the first Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law in 1984 – tighter new regulations for chemical plant operators come into effect almost every year. Since the Tianjin explosion, chemical industry modernization has continued at an even more accelerated pace. New laws further restrict the movement and treatment of hazardous waste while chemical safety law has been revised at a national and provincial level. Locally in Tianjin, initiatives from the local government have shut down 68 chemical firms running illegal or dangerous practices and rectified 3,606 safety violations in the last 12 months alone.


Cai Ling
General Manager of Veolia’s Hazardous Waste Integrated Treatment Center in Tianjin

Cai Ling is clearly proud of how Veolia acted immediately after the blast. “Veolia’s ability to respond to the blast in a timely and professional manner made me feel deeply that Veolia is a socially responsible corporation with extensive expertise.” A far cry from the stereotypical image, Cai Ling describes hazardous waste treatment as a profession combining technical expertise and tenacity. “The waste industry was traditionally perceived as an unappealing industry, with hazardous waste being dirty and dangerous,” she states. “But it requires a high level of technical skills, strong risk prevention and control capability.
What’s more, you need refined management, patience, attention to detail, determination and perseverance to thrive in this sector.”