Officials struggle to explain fish kill near Tianjin blast site

Runoff near site contains hundreds of times more cyanide than maximum level allowed

Dead fish  on the banks of Haihe river at Binhai new district in Tianjin, China, August 20th, 2015. Photograph: Reuters

Dead fish on the banks of Haihe river at Binhai new district in Tianjin, China, August 20th, 2015. Photograph: Reuters


Officials grappling with the toxic fallout from a series of deadly explosions that rocked the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin last week have found themselves struggling to explain thousands of dead fish that washed up on a riverbank less than four miles from the blast site.

News of the fish kill coincided with reports that wastewater runoff near the site of the explosions contained hundreds of times more cyanide than the maximum level allowed by law.

Sodium cyanide, a chemical widely used in gold-mining operations, can be toxic to humans even in minuscule quantities.

Authorities have acknowledged at least 700 tons of it were stored at the warehouse that exploded on August 12th, killing more than 100 people and injuring hundreds more.

Unaccounted for

At least 65 people remain unaccounted for and presumed dead after the disaster, most of them firefighters.

Throngs of curious onlookers gathered on Thursday on the banks of the Haihe River to take pictures of the grim scene of dead fish, while officials tried to reassure the public.

Mass die-offs of marine life are not unusual in the summer, when oxygen levels in the polluted river water can fall sharply, officials said.

State-owned China Central Television reported later that tests found no significant presence of cyanide in that part of the river.

The official assurances seemed to fall on deaf ears, however.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Wang Lei (47), a freight company manager who wore a face mask as he surveyed the putrid mass of dead fish clogging the river’s rocky shallows.

“There has to be a link between the dead fish and the blast. What else could explain the death of so many?”

Public worries

Photos of the dead fish were posted widely on Chinese social media, feeding public worries over the tons of chemicals that were in the warehouse.

Authorities have already said the logistics company that operated the facility broke the law by storing such dangerous materials too close to apartment houses, highways and public buildings.

Chinese officials are contending with a public that is losing patience over the explosions and the myriad issues they have raised.

Residents of the area near the blast site have staged protests, demanding compensation for their damaged homes, while the anguished families of firefighters who first responded to the blaze sought word on their missing loved ones.

At a Politburo meeting on Thursday, President Xi Jinping promised a full investigation into the disaster.

“The incident has caused heavy casualties and property loss,” he said, according to a statement released after the meeting.

“It was a profound lesson paid with blood.” Officials have said the company involved, Rui Hai International Logistics, was storing at least 2,500 tons of hazardous chemicals in the warehouse.

New York Times service