TIANJIN, China (Reuters) - China said on Tuesday it is investigating the head of its work safety regulator who for years allowed companies to operate without a license for dangerous chemicals, days after blasts in a port warehouse storing such material killed 114 people.
Yang Dongliang, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, is “currently undergoing investigation” for suspected violations of party discipline and the law, China’s anti-graft watchdog said in a statement on its website.
The agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, did not say that Yang’s behavior was connected to the explosions in the port of Tianjin but the company that operated the chemical warehouse that blew up did not have a license to work with such dangerous materials for more than a year.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the blasts but the disaster has deepened public concern about safety regulations.
China has struggled in recent years with incidents ranging from mining disasters to factory fires, and President Xi Jinping has vowed that authorities should learn the lessons paid for with blood.
The People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, said last week warehouse owner Tianjin Dongjiang Port Ruihai International Logistics had operated without a license to work with dangerous chemicals because of an administrative loophole.
Reuters could not verify that report but the company did not have any form of certification, including a license to handle dangerous goods, between October 2014 and June 2015, according to its records on the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) website.
The agency is one of many government departments that regulate companies that operate with dangerous materials.
The Xinhua news agency said the company worked with hazardous chemicals throughout that period, citing an unidentified company official.
Yang’s agency, the State Administration of Work Safety, said on its website that in 2012 he signed a directive allowing companies to function without a license to operate dangerous chemicals as long as they had a license governing port operations.
Yang, who was vice mayor of Tianjin, a city of 15 million people until 2012, was not available for comment.
Ten people, including Ruihai head Yu Xuewei and deputy head Dong Shexuan, were detained last Thursday, the official People’s Daily’s reported on its Weibo microblog on Tuesday.
It has not been possible to reach the company since Thursday but one of its workers defended its operations.
“This was purely an accident,” the worker, Zhang Baoyan, who said he was responsible for storing and handling, told Reuters at the scene of the blast.
“The usual management is good and the systems are clear and orderly.”
The explosions late last Wednesday in the world’s 10th-busiest port in China’s industrial northeast, forced the evacuation of thousands of people after toxic chemicals were detected in the air.
More than 700 people were injured and another 70, mostly fire fighters, are still missing. The blasts devastated a large industrial site and nearby residential areas.
The government has confirmed there was about 700 tons of the deadly chemical sodium cyanide in the warehouse that blew up.
Displaced residents vented their frustration at the lack of government transparency at a protest outside a 3-km (2-mile) exclusion zone earlier on Tuesday.
“Chinese people really value safety,” said a man surnamed Zhu, whose flat was about a kilometer from the blast site. “Do you think if we knew there were dangerous chemicals so near we would have bought the apartment?”
Hundreds of people who lived near the blast site have demanded that the government arrange compensation or buy back their property..
Fitch Ratings said insurance losses from the explosions could be material for Chinese insurance companies and potentially exceed $1 billion-$1.5 billion.
Several dozen nurses and other medical workers carried white flowers as they observed a period of silence outside a hospital where the injured were being treated, one of several memorials held on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong and Brenda Goh in SHANGHAI and Michael Martina, Winni Zhou and Judy Hua in BEIJING; Writing by Sue-Lin Wong and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel