Underground gas pipeline explosions in Kaohsiung, a major industrial port and Taiwan’s second largest city, killed at least 28 people and injuring more than 280 on July 31.

This is the first major gas explosion in Taiwan’s history, and municipal and national agencies are carrying out ongoing investigations to determine the actual cause. The series of explosions occurred in the densely populated Qianzhen and Lingya Districts in Kaohsiung, spread across several blocks in the southern parts of the city. Propylene, a hydrocarbon gas used to produce fabrics and plastics, is believed to be the major cause of the explosion. The LCY Chemical Corp., a petrochemical producer based in Kaohsiung, is thought to be one of the companies responsible for the gas explosion.

The incident reveals several alarming aspects of Taiwan’s ability to handle emergency chemical disasters like this. Gen-Cheng Lee, the Executive Director of Citizen of the Earth Foundation, pointed out in an op-ed for Taiwan’s Apple Daily that the municipal government failed to curb the number of casualties because it did not activate Kaohsiung’s chemical disaster response system in time. Despite being home to Taiwan’s oldest and biggest petrochemical facilities, Kaohsiung hasn’t developed a complete response system to chemical disasters of any kind, Lee argued. Additionally, he said that residents and fire departments have no access to complete information regarding the location of storage places of chemicals and what amounts each location held.

Albert Tzeng, a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in the Netherlands, thinks that the complex underground pipeline system that brings together different kinds of life necessities and industrial products in a dense metro area like Kaohsiung, necessarily increases the risk of serious disasters. He suggests that Taiwan’s government agencies should reconsider the security measures for implementing underground pipelines. In light of this accident, a mechanism that can shut down the pipeline system when it senses signs of leaks is necessary, Tseng argues. In addition, a geological database that contains complete information about all underground pipelines will provide citizens a clear picture of what might be hidden underground. Tseng also thinks that municipal governments should be well prepared for unexpected and rare disasters like this so they know how to handle them properly when they do occur.

Rescue work is still underway in Kaohsiung, and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has also visited the explosion sites. Local hotels and schools have become temporary shelters for residents without homes to go back to. A three-day commemoration will be held across Taiwan starting August 5 to show condolence over the perished and injured victims.

(Feature photo of a scene in Kaohsiung after the blasts, by 鄭原真)

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