11/14/2005, 00.00
CHINA
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Mass evacuation follows chemical plant blasts in Jilin

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and many wounded. A toxic black cloud covered the sky for hours. The cause of the blasts is "unknown" so far. Thousands of people die each year in tens of thousands of industrial accidents.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Tens of thousands of people were evacuated and more than 70 were wounded yesterday after a series of explosions between 2 and 3pm at a chemical plant in the north-east city of Jilin. The blasts actually appeared on state television: they made the earth shake, shattered window panes within a 300m radius and left an enormous black cloud which covered the sky for hours. Benzene, a highly toxic substance, is produced in the plant, run by Jilin Petroleum and Chemical Company,

Two entire residential neighbourhoods and the students of Beihua University and the city's Institute for Chemical Technology were evacuated,. "More than 10,000 residents have been evacuated for fear of further explosions and pollution by chemical substances," said a company spokesman. Six people are missing. Most of the people wounded were outside the plant, hit by glass and debris. It is not known whether there were any workers in the plant at the time of the explosions.

The company management have not let out what happened and the city authorities have said "investigations are under way" Access to the area is prohibited. The party secretary of Jilin, Jiao Zhengzhong , and mayor Xu Jianyi went on the scene to direct the rescue operation.

There have been other incidents at Jilin's industrial plants, including an explosion at a fertiliser plant on 30 December 2004 which killed three people and injured more than 10.

Experts say hundreds of thousands of accidents happen each year in the country, with a death toll running into thousands. In the first trimester of 2004, for example, there were no less than 236,048 accidents in industrial plants, including 718 fatal ones, with more than 30,000 dead. In the same period, in the coal mining sector, there were "about" 735 accidents with 1079 people killed. Old facilities, obsolete equipment, inadequately prepared personnel, and inefficient checks are among the main causes of accidents.

The risk is high for those living in the area. In April 2004, a blast in Chongqing city killed nine people and left a chlorine cloud which forced more than 150,000 people to flee their homes in the middle of the night. There have been other accidents in the plant itself: in December 2003, 234 people were killed.

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