21 killed in blast at power plant in central China

The explosion at the coal-fired power plant in Dangyang, Hubei Province. Photo: Weibo

At least 21 people were killed and five injured by an explosion at a coal-fired power plant in central China on Thursday, according to official reports.

The deaths and injuries occurred when a high-pressure steam pipe exploded at a plant in the city of Dangyang in Hubei Province, according to a news website run by the provincial government.

The plant is owned by the Madian Gangue Power Generation Company, the website said.

Newspapers said that the company operating the plant was registered for power generation and sales of slag ash and petroleum products.

The local government said that it was investigating the cause of the accident.

Three people seriously injured were being treated in hospital, reports said.

Rescuers were still searching the site for victims.

A man who answered the telephone at the Dangyang government's propaganda office, who identified himself as Chen, said that the government would release more details later.

The State Administration of Work Safety has sent a work group to Dangyang to follow up.

On Thursday night, the official Xinhua news agency said that an initial investigation by the city found that the steam pipe had burst and started leaking during a debugging process for the power plant, which is still under construction.

The plant uses coal gangue, also known as low-calorific coal, which is waste product from the mining and processing of coal.

Although coal gangue has relatively low energy value, and is considered more harmful to the environment than other types of coal, some central government officials and some provincial governments have been encouraging the establishment of power plants that will burn coal gangue. Otherwise, it is left in piles at mine sites.

The Chinese government has pledged to reduce coal use around big population centers to alleviate air pollution and mitigate the effects of climate change. As the country's economy has slowed, the growth in coal use has decreased, and there was even a small decline in coal use in 2015 compared with the previous year.

Last month, Greenpeace East Asia, based in Beijing, released a report that said China was on track to add an average of one new coal-fired plant a week until 2020, despite attempts by the central government to slow down approval of the plants.

The blast came a day before the first anniversary of giant explosions that killed at least 165 people in the northern port of Tianjin.

The massive blasts in Tianjin, which caused over $1 billion in damages and killed at least 165, sparked widespread anger over a perceived lack of transparency by officials about the accident's causes and environmental impact.

A government inquiry into the Tianjin accident released in February recommended that 123 people be punished.

The blast site in Tianjin is still inaccessible, with a blue metal wall ringing the perimeter. Patrolling police prevent journalists from getting a closer look, while a Swat car, parked on a highway overlooking the area, discourages anyone from stopping.

Chinese industrial facilities have a poor safety record, as a number of accidents have been reported before.

Earlier this year, more than 130 people were taken to hospital after chemicals leaked from a plant in eastern China.

In April, a chemical fire burned for 16 hours in the coastal province of Jiangsu after an explosion at a facility storing chemicals and fuel, requiring 400 firefighters to quell the flames.

China has vowed to improve safety at industrial facilities. President Xi Jinping has said that the authorities would learn the lessons paid for with blood after chemical blasts in Tianjin.

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