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Measures must be taken to prevent a repeat of these blasts

The nation has been left shell-shocked in the wake of Thursday's deadly blasts in Kaohsiung. But while we must ask how a tragic accident of this massive scale could have happened and who should take the blame, we must seek ways to prevent a repeat.

We believe that very few people actually knew that underneath the roads just outside their front doors were pipelines transporting industrial gases to petrochemical factories — until after the explosions that rocked the densely populated downtown area in the southern port city.

We must ask why these pipelines were allowed to run along busy streets in urban areas. We must also ask how many more such industrial pipelines there are in Kaohsiung, and in other parts of the country.

We must ask how these pipelines have been maintained, managed and monitored. All five companies that had pipelines involved in the explosions denied they were at fault. They all claimed their pressure monitoring systems — which are used to detect pipeline leaks — showed no anomalies at the time of the accident.

Prosecutors have reportedly seized the records of the systems, but we must ask whether such detection is sufficient.

Gas leaks were first reported shortly before 9 p.m. Thursday. Firefighters arrived and started spraying water trying to dilute the gases. But that presumably standard procedure apparently didn't work, and after about three hours of futile attempts to control the leak, the gases exploded and turned the area into an inferno.

We must ask whether the firefighters could have done better. We are not putting the blame on the firefighters, five of whom were killed in the disaster, with two still missing as of press time.

We salute the brave firefighters and their sacrifices, but we must ask whether the training they have received was enough to enable appropriate judgment in such a situation: should they have decided to evacuate residents from the area earlier?

We must also ask whether the firefighters were as ignorant as ordinary citizens as to what was really underneath the roads. We must ask whether firefighters in charge of a certain area are equipped with a map of the underground utility networks of the area.

Some survivors claimed they had been told by firefighters that the situation was "under control" and that they should go to bed.

A ward chief was cited as saying he had made several calls to the authorities asking in vain that the pipelines be shut down.

We must ask whether those companies had received requests from the authorities that they shut down the pipelines but refused to do so. We must ask why no one seems to have the authority to order these companies to shut down their pipelines.

So many questions have been asked here, and we do hope all of them can be answered.

We do not just want answers for their own sake; we want answers so that we know what we can do to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy. And we do not just want to know how we can prevent them; we want actions to be taken.

The reconstruction of the area will be a massive task. And we must also assess the possibility of removing such pipelines from urban areas, even though rerouting them would be a massive project.

Environmental activists have always complained about the impact of the petrochemical industry on the environment, and now they may have extra fuel for their arguments.

But let's not go down that road of argument yet. Before we can decide whether the petrochemical industry should continue to play a major role in Taiwan's economy — after all it has been playing such an important role for years — let's solve the more pressing issue first, the one of having to walk on top of a time bomb every day.

We can foresee the coming of a wave of protests by citizens against the existence of such industrial pipelines near their homes.

If these pipelines cannot be removed to less densely populated areas, we must make sure that they are sufficiently maintained, managed and monitored.

1 Comment
August 3, 2014    hakchoi@
Measures must be taken, but what measures? The editorial seems to advocate the reestablishment or endurance of status quo, which has been met with the public outcry. This editorial is short-sighted.
As long as state-owned companies, like the Tai-oil, or Tai-power, exist, government plays the double roles of players and umpire. There is no hope for impersonal supervision by the government. When the local government has to beg for its budget from the central, there is no hope that it can file any protest against its donors. Any measure is in vain, unless...
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