The blast that killed three people at a fertilizer factory in Ho Chi Minh City this month has left the neighbors of the city's poorly monitored chemical shops uneasy.
Municipal officials have done little to assuage those fears and spent much of their time, in the aftermath, pointing fingers at one another.
A female security guard posted in front of a chemical store on Kinh Duong Vuong Street in the same district rocked by the explosion, told Tuoi Tre newspaper she goes to bed “chilled” each night by televised images of the aftermath of the deadly explosion.
She and her colleague said they know nothing about the safety measures employed at the store.
“[The chemicals] will explode anytime they like and there's nothing we can do about it," she said with a fatalistic resignation.
Her employer was fined, recently, for not adopting proper fire and storage safety protocols for hundreds of kinds of chemicals that lie next to people’s houses.
Hundreds of trucks come and leave the store every day.
Nguyen Thi T., who lives behind the store, said she could not sleep after several deadly explosions in the city this year.
“If I smell something strange at night, I run out into the street to see what’s wrong.
“People living here are never at rest.”
Many shops on Phan Anh Street in Binh Tan District collect and recycle batteries and make aluminum-plated products.
A propane tank shop sits next to a chemical shop on Go Dau Street in Tan Phu District, HCMC. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre
Tran Dai Hoa, a local, said he doesn’t know what chemicals the shops use but they give off a powerful stench.
Hoa said the street feels better during the rainy season, but if one walks past the wrong store on a hot day, they may be struck with a chemical burning sensation.
“These small shops store things in a chaotic and casual manner, from machines, chemicals to materials and electrical wires.
“I don't want to be a Cassandra, but all it would take is a wayward ember from an incense stick to set this whole thing ablaze,” he said.
Le Thi Lan H., who lives on Go Dau Street, Tan Phu District, said a chemical shop sits next door to a propane tank vendor in her neighborhood.
“The owners are rarely there. They leave everything to the workers, who are usually careless and know little about fire and chemical safety,” H. said.
More than 16,500 businesses are licensed to trade chemicals in Ho Chi Minh City, 365 others are licensed to produce them, according to the Department of Investment and Planning.
Four chemicals explosions killed seven people in the city this year and caused around VND34.5 billion (US$1.62 million) in damages. Similar accidents killed another person in 2010.
The principal cause of the explosions involved the mixture of volatile chemicals that had leaked out of their containers.
Two cases involved the deliberate production of explosive materials.
During a meeting held on the recent blast on October 22, People's Committee Chairman Le Hoang said chemical businesses should be moved out of the city’s residential areas.
“The management of chemicals has been loose,” Quan said, adding that oversight responsibilities frequently overlap across agencies.
“It is poor cooperation between agencies and poor oversight on chemical traders and producers that indirectly led to the explosion,” he said.
Officials have passed the buck ever since.
The investment department claimed to only be in charge of issuing business licenses, while the Department of Industry and Trade said they are responsible for monitoring business operations, but said district authorities are responsible for supervising activities in their area.
So far, word has come from those who were nominally in charge of watching the factory, but they all criticized the business owners for being careless in the first place.
The fertilizer factory in District 12 was owned by Dang Huynh Company and the city authorities have considered arresting him for criminal investigation.
Nguyen Van Thanh, head of the Chemicals Agency at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, said safety awareness among businesspeople is one important factor in preventing such incidents.
“All stages from licensing to managing and inspecting won’t mean anything if the business owners don't take careful measures to protect themselves.”