Out of the Ashes
More than a year after horrific gas pipeline blasts claimed over 30 lives, Kaohsiung City is mending its wounds, seeking answers, and assigning blame.
First the ground shook. Milliseconds later came fireballs shooting as high as 50 meters into the sky. Roads split in half, swallowing cars and motorcycles. Vehicles were tossed onto four-story rooftops. Thirty-two people died and 321 were injured in the worst accident of its kind in Taiwan’s history.
The ROC flag flew at half-mast for three days following the July 31-August 1, 2014 Kaohsiung gas explosions, and people from across the island donated billions of New Taiwan dollars to help.
Today, well over a year since that cataclysmic night, Kaohsiung’s roads are repaired and the city is healing. But for some victims, that healing will be slow. Several dozen of the injured are still recovering at a special rehabilitation center in Kaohsiung’s Zuoying District run by the Sunshine Social Welfare Foundation. One of those patients is Kaohsiung motorcycle mechanic Hsu Yan-hsiang, who woke up in a hospital over a month after the blasts to find that he was missing his right leg. The limb had to be amputated to save his life.
To this day, Hsu wears pressurized garments to help heal the burns that covered more than 60% of his body. He uses a prosthetic leg and will almost certainly require further reconstructive surgeries, but Hsu is back on his feet – quite literally – and even took part in a recent video encouraging the victims of this year’s Bali water park fire.
What exactly happened on that horrific night last summer and why?
According to Kaohsiung Deputy Mayor Derek Chen, who was chief of the city’s Environmental Protection Bureau at the time of the disaster, some historical background is helpful in understanding the incident. He notes that Kaohsiung has long been Taiwan’s primary center for heavy industry, including the petrochemical sector. Although in recent decades pipelines have run under many roads in the city – even under the section of Sihwei Road where City Hall is located – most of the areas were not densely populated when the pipelines were first laid. It was only afterwards that the neighborhood in the vicinity of the disaster became a major residential center.
“Unquestionably, the supervision and maintenance of the pipelines was not done properly for quite some time”
“It’s probably fair to say that some of the routes chosen for the gas pipelines were not thought through very well,” says the Deputy Mayor. “But unquestionably, the supervision and maintenance of the pipelines was not done properly for quite some time. Before this disaster, even the pipeline owners weren’t 100% sure of the routes of their lines, as blueprints were unclear and record-keeping was unsatisfactory.”
In that pre-democratic era of Taiwan’s political development, policy decisions often took industrial development as the paramount priority, with little consideration of environmental or social concerns.
Wu Wei-Ning, assistant professor at the Institute of Public Affairs Management at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung, cites another aspect of the problem. “Due to limited budgets, city leaders prioritized public projects such as parks or public transportation,” he explains. “I’m not saying these things are unimportant, but if we’re honest, it must be said that city leaders and politicians paid little attention to city pipeline management over the last decades.”
As the population of Kaohsiung grew, infrastructure development began to focus on broader community needs, such as the prevention of flooding, which previously was a major concern. The seasonal torrential downpours that hit this tropical city would turn the streets into rivers. To solve this problem, in 1991 large water pipes or culverts were installed to serve as heavy-duty drainage channels. For the most part, the system worked, and downtown areas of the city these days rarely see flooding.
But as this construction program unfolded, the stage was being set for a disaster. As one culvert was being put in place, a pipeline was found to be “in the way.” Instead of being rerouted, the pipeline was allowed to run inside the culvert.
Experts agree that no sane modern engineer would ever approve of putting a gas pipeline inside a culvert, but somehow that is what happened. To make matters worse, says Deputy Mayor Chen, it appears from post-disaster investigations that an excavator had likely hit the pipeline at some point during one of the city’s many urban renewal projects. The result was that several meters of a pipeline inside a water culvert under Kaixuan Road may have had a small puncture wound as it carried industrial gas. This damage could have caused gradual corrosion as water flowed over the pipe for decades, making an eventual rupture inevitable.
The night the deadly leak began, gas quietly seeped through the culverts and mixed with water flowing through them. Unsuspecting residents were sitting on a time bomb – all that was left was the spark.
The four entities most directly connected to the 2014 explosions are the Kaohsiung City Government, whose mayor before 1994 was appointed by the central government; the LCY Chemical Corp., a leading petrochemical producer listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange since 1977; China General Terminal & Distribution Corp. (CGTD), a logistics firm contracted by LCY to transport gas to LCY’s plant in the city’s Da-She District; and CPC Corp., Taiwan’s state-run oil company.
Deputy Mayor Chen took out his pen and drew a “Y” shape lying on its side. “Imagine the pipelines like this,” he said. “At the end of the line is the LCY plant. The top branch of the ‘Y’ connects to the harbor. The other branch of the ‘Y’ is a pipeline belonging to CPC. Sometimes LCY bought gas from CPC and the gas went up through the CPC ‘Y’ line and on to the plant. Sometimes LCY brought in gas from ships in the harbor, 25 kilometers away from their plant. That transportation was contracted to CGTD.”
On the day of the blasts, LCY was receiving the feedstock propylene (also called propene) from the harbor via the line operated by CGTD. When LCY noticed it was not getting the correct amount of propylene 20-some minutes after 8 p.m., its engineers started making calls to CGTD, which then shut down the line. Roughly an hour and a half later (sources differ as to the precise timing), LCY requested the pipeline be reopened and CGTD complied – a fatal mistake.
CGTD did finally shut off the pipeline for good that night, Derek Chen told the media last year when he was head of the Environmental Protection Bureau. But that final shutdown occurred only roughly 20 minutes before the explosions.
When white smoke and the whiff of gas floated ominously out of sewer drains along Kaisyuan 3rd Road near 9 p.m. that evening, a leak was of course suspected and firefighters responded. But Kaohsiung Fire Bureau head Chen Hung-lung said in an interview that his firefighters didn’t really know what they were confronting. They sprayed mists of water into sewers to try to “dilute” the gas, but propene is not diluted by water.
No one will ever know what ignited the blast. A discarded cigarette butt? A spark from a motorbike engine? It doesn’t really matter. At three minutes before midnight, the skies over Kaohsiung turned orange from at least seven major detonations.
Asked whether Kaohsiung is safer today than it was on the night of July 31, 2014, now-Deputy Mayor Chen was unequivocal. “Much safer,” he said before pulling out his phone to show dozens of LINE app messages related to gas leak reports. “Kaohsiung’s people have obviously become hyper-aware of the potential for disaster. I get more reports via LINE and the ‘1999’ citizen hotline than you might imagine. People call in to report ‘suspicious smells’ all the time. Usually it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s something as innocuous as a type of tropical fruit that emits a gas-like smell as it rots. But not one call is taken lightly.”
Following what he terms the painful “wake-up call” last summer, the Deputy Mayor says the city administration is also assiduously formulating ways to make improvements, such as setting clear rules governing pipeline use and maintenance in Kaohsiung and tightening lines of communication between the municipal government and major industrial firms operating here.
The Kaohsiung city government now maintains a computerized database with as much detailed information on pipeline routes and their owners as is currently known. Telephone numbers for engineers, managers, and CEOs of relevant companies and organizations are kept on file. In addition, the Deputy Mayor explained, the fire department now operates a network so that when a call comes in, it is immediately directed to the fire station responsible for covering the area involved.
“You know what we do when we get a call now?” Chen asked. “We turn off the gas valves! It might seem obvious, but last year we spent too long trying to figure out what kind of gas was leaking. To be frank, it doesn’t really matter what kind of gas might be leaking. All the pipeline gases in Kaohsiung are potentially toxic and flammable. Step one is to stop the flow. Our response today is instant and that in itself is a huge improvement.”
Greater Public Involvement
Wu Wei-Ning of National Sun Yat-Sen University agrees that significant improvements have been made and welcomes the increase in public awareness. In the past, “interest groups had limited influence on any governmental activities in Taiwan,” he notes. “More citizen voices need to be heard when policy decisions are made, as many of these projects have irreversible consequences that future generations end up paying the price for.” Wu adds that public officials, learning from the experiences of other countries, are gradually adopting new localized mechanisms for managing risks.
As the city conducted large-scale inspections of pipelines following the blasts, know-how from abroad has played an important role, says Deputy Mayor Chen. A device known as a “pig” or “smart pig” inserted into pipelines allows inspections to be carried out without having to stop the flow of whatever the line is transporting. The “smart pig” can even measure the thickness of a pipe. Should the thickness in a particular area not match the pipe’s design specs, engineers will know exactly where to search for a potential problem.
Chen said that inspections of culverts in the year since the blasts found as many as 50 other cases where pipes were improperly intersected with culverts. These pipes have now been removed and rerouted.
Earlier this year, a three-way “blame pact” was signed, with LCY, Kaohsiung City, and CGTD agreeing that each was likely at fault in some way. LCY agreed to immediately begin paying a total of NT$12 million to the family of each deceased victim, while stressing that its willingness to pay initial compensation should not be taken as an admission that it is most responsible.
Under the pact, LCY has four years to dole out the funds, and after a court assigns a percentage of blame to Kaohsiung City and CGTD, each will reimburse LCY for a portion of the payments according to their determined share of responsibility. Chen says that because the courts will need to consider a host of complex questions, it could be a year or two before the “blame assessments” are handed down.
Individuals will also be expected to bear legal responsibility. Twelve persons were indicted by the Kaohsiung District Prosecutors Office in December 2014, including five employees of LCY Chemical, three CGTD workers, and three former officials of the Kaohsiung Public Works Bureau responsible for overseeing the construction of the culverts over two decades ago. LCY Chairman Bowei Lee was also indicted on charges of negligence and public endangerment.
“Mismanagement was the key to the 2014 Kaohsiung gas explosions,” observes Wu Wei-Ning. While lauding the city government’s apparent commitment to tighter supervision, more frequent inspections, and other improvements, Wu also adds a note of caution. “Are we safer?” he asks. “That’s hard to say. How safe is safe enough?”
He calls on the government to invest more in disaster preparedness. “Put it this way,” Wu says. “If you can’t be 100% sure how to prevent disasters (either man-made or natural), isn’t it better to do everything you can to prepare for them?”
NOTE: (This article first appeared in TOPICS Magazine – a publication by The American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), in November 2015. It has been re-published with permission. Writer E. Michael Smith works as a freelance correspondent for ICRT radio in southern Taiwan as well as other media groups. Link to original article is below)