Event: Safety accident/explosion, 2015

In 2015, the port of Tianjin suffered an explosion that occurred at a warehouse located in the port area. The warehouse building was owned by a privately held company established in 2011, which was authorized by the Tianjin Maritime Safety Administration to handle hazardous chemicals at the port. Its operating licence was renewed only two months before the explosions.

Causes and impact

The presence of 700 tons of highly toxic materials – at least 70 times more than the legal limit – is the main factor behind the accident (Huang P., 2015). Safety regulations requiring that public buildings and facilities should be at least one kilometer away were not respected. Hazardous and toxic materials and gases provoked two initial explosions, which resulted in 2.9 magnitude seismic shockwave, leading to many casualties and injuries. Several concurrent factors amplified the disruption, including: (i) heavy rains right after the accident created harmful chemical foam and pollution, which gave rise to an additional health hazard; and (ii) lack of control and legal enforcement of basic safety regulations stating that hazardous operations had to be located at least one kilometer away from public buildings.

Given the size and importance of the port of Tianjin, the impact of the disruption was severe for both regional and global supply chains. The port and its hinterland were congested for months after the explosion, with the main road accessing the port being temporarily unavailable. Several key port buildings were either destroyed or damaged, public transportation facilities stopped functioning order, and most administrative functions, such as customs and inspection offices, were interrupted. Port operations were disrupted, and 7,500 intermodal containers piled up. The oil and gas industries, LNG imports and steel and iron ore trades were particularly affected. Containerized trade was mostly redirected via air freight, and significant damage to local biodiversity was observed.

Response and mitigation measures10

Immediately after the explosion, dangerous cargo operations (mainly liquid bulk and petrol-chemical cargoes) were temporarily banned. Vessels were temporarily allowed to leave but not to enter, and stringent checks of movements in and out of the port were imposed. The overall port planning was also revised, and unaffected sections of the port continued operations. Responses included: (i) stringent checks of movements in and out of the port; (ii) regular risk assessment processes; and (iii) regulatory changes, such as forbidding the use of incinerators in Tianjin port and requiring carriers of hazardous materials to use sealing or other protective measures and ensure that fuel quality is monitored and regularly tested (Japan P&I club, 2018).

Lessons learned and good practice11

  • Strengthen port coordination and transparent communications among business partners and the local community to minimise the negative impact of an incident and backpropagation.
  • Enhance transparency and data availability to better monitor cargo, including hazardous materials within port facilities.
  • Carry out regular risk assessments and implications for port activities and the other port-centric industries and services.
  • Ensure that clearer regulations are in place to prevent and control maritime pollution.




10This section also draws on Fu G. (2016).
11 See also, Bahtic F. (2021).