Rob Cox: Tianjin deserves to be a Cuyahoga moment

By Rob Cox
August 20, 2015

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A few days after a series of apocalyptic blasts shook Tianjin, residents of China’s sixth-largest city reported an odd precipitation resembling snow flurries falling from the sky. On Monday, the streets near Binhai – the port area where warehouses holding 3,000 tons of chemicals including sodium cyanide exploded, killing at least 114 people – were covered in strange white foam. One Chinese journalist reported a stinging sensation from skin contact with the stuff.

Tianjin’s visible after effects recall other environmental disasters where Mother Nature has reacted in mysterious, and troubling, ways to the abusive behavior of mankind. Recall the time in June of 1969 that the Cuyahoga River, which divides Cleveland, Ohio – the American Tianjin of its day – caught fire. That served as the tipping point for stringent regulation of pollution in the United States, and the systematic cleanup of its air and waterways.

Though there have been many calamities over the past few decades of China’s great lurch forward, there are few clearer indications that industrialization has crossed a line than images of a city blanketed by chemical snow in midsummer, or a watery tributary aflame. So as Chinese authorities sift through Tianjin’s charred port for answers and bodies it may be worth considering whether the People’s Republic can learn from America’s response to that earlier cataclysm.

For a century the Cuyahoga served as the conduit to Lake Erie for Cleveland’s factories, refineries – and sewers. The river was effectively the urinal for John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, which at its peak had some thirty-odd refining operations in the city. Clevelanders used to joke that anyone who falls into the river does not drown, but decays.

That all began to shift after June 22, 1969, when sparks from a train passing over a petroleum slick burst into flames, something the Cuyahoga had done at least nine times since the 1860s, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the half hour before it was squelched, the fire charred a couple of bridges. The city’s mayor filed a formal complaint with the state the next day.

All of this might have come to naught if Time magazine – then read by everyone who mattered in America – hadn’t featured the burning Cuyahoga on its cover, accompanied by an essay calling for action to reverse the decline of American rivers and lakes. “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows,” Time wrote of the Cuyahoga.

The story struck a nerve – notwithstanding the cover photograph was of a previous river fire in 1952. By December the following year, Republican President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency through executive order. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed by Congress. Thus began a crackdown that continues to this day of America’s industrial titans, from General Electric to DuPont. Last year alone, the EPA forced companies to spend some $10 billion to control pollution and clean up contaminated sites.

Tianjin is worse than Cuyahoga in so many ways. For starters, there’s the extraordinary loss of life, with firefighters numbering at least 39 of the confirmed dead. Around 700 others were injured and 70 people remain unaccounted for. The explosions damaged 17,000 apartments, inciting rare public protests from residents demanding the government buy back their homes. Cyanide levels in the waters around Tianjin clocked in at 356 times acceptable limits.

There are other important differences with that earlier, American conflagration that suggest a different outcome from the Tianjin debacle. For starters, Time was free to publicize the plight of America’s environmental degradation in ways that would be unthinkable under Beijing’s media control. That said, the profusion of images on Chinese social media – from harrowing clips of the fiery blasts to photos of charred cars and that nasty white substance falling from the heavens – may prove more impactful than one magazine’s editorializing.

China already has laws on its books that are as tough, if not tougher, than the United States had in 1968. Indeed, what Tianjin shows is the lax enforcement of those rules, including one prohibiting the storage of hazardous chemicals within 1,000 meters of residential areas. That gets to the single biggest difference: in China there are no bright lines between industry, the government and the Communist Party.

Look no further than the operator of the warehouses in Tianjin, Rui Hai International Logistics. Rui Hai’s main shareholder is Yu Xuewei, a former executive at Sinochem, a state-owned chemicals conglomerate, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. His co-owner was Dong Shexuan, whose father was the Tianjin Port Authority police chief.

This illustrates a far more existential hurdle to reversing China’s ongoing failure to value quality of life over economic development. So long as business, government and party are one and the same, there is a real danger that Tianjin goes down in memory as an unfortunate accident, rather than as a Cuyahoga-like watershed moment capable of inspiring change.

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