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Firefighters work on the rubble of a pesticide plant owned by Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical following an explosion in Xiangshui county, Yancheng, Jiangsu province, last week.
Photo: Reuters

The death toll from an explosion at a chemical plant in eastern China last week has risen to 78, of whom 56 have been identified.

Cao Lubao, mayor of the city of Yancheng, Jiangsu province, said Monday the number of fatalities had increased from 64 on Sunday.

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Over the weekend officials said more than 600 people had been injured in the explosion at the Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical plant on Thursday, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

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The death toll makes the incident the deadliest industrial accident in the country since the 2015 explosions in Tianjin, which claimed 173 lives.

Although police have detained Tianjiayi Chemical’s key executives, it is also possible government leaders could also take action against officials who are partially responsible for the incident.

“Looking at the severity, heads will also roll among the government officials who were in charge,” said Wang Jiangyu, an associate professor from the National University of Singapore’s law faculty.

The Jiangsu Communist Party’s provincial committee said the accident would have “extremely serious consequences,” adding “the impact is extremely profound, and the lessons are extremely painful.”

President Xi Jinping, who is currently visiting Europe, said no effort should be spared to treat the injured and demanded all levels of government strengthen their inspection procedures.

An investigation team from the State Council, China’s cabinet, made a preliminary conclusion on the nature of the accident on Saturday, blaming local officials who “are ignorant of their work” for allowing the company to continue its operations despite multiple safety violations.

The stern wording also provides clues to Beijing’s likely response as the angry tone echoes that following the 2015 Tianjin explosion, which led to jail terms for 25 officials and 24 company executives, while a further 74 officials faced disciplinary action.

The State Council has also ordered nationwide inspections to identify and rectify dangers in chemical factories.

In addition, the State Council’s Work Safety Committee, headed by Vice-Premier Liu He, told government departments to ensure safety in other industries, including coal mining, road transport and construction.

Search and rescue efforts were continuing and emergency workers were expanding efforts to contain pollution from the explosions.

Cao said teams were gathering debris from the blast and trying to mop up water used by firefighters to battle the blaze.

He said workers were also identifying pollution of groundwater, and trying to block further soil contamination.

Dams had been built in the rivers in the surrounding area to prevent polluted water from flowing out of the 10.8 sq km contamination zone, Cao said.

Tests by the local department of the environment on Friday found three rivers that flow through the industrial park had been contaminated with dichloroethane and dichloromethane.

It also found that concentrations of toxic ammoniacal nitrogen in the Xinfeng river were more than 200 times higher than national safety standards permit.

The department also recorded air pollution three and a half kilometers downwind of the blast site. Levels of nitrogen oxide, which can cause respiratory problems, were almost twice the national air safety level for industrial zones.

The explosion destroyed the chemical plant and caused varying degrees of damage to 16 neighboring factories.

The blast also forced some 3,000 people – residents and factory workers – to be evacuated from their homes and workplaces. According to state news agency Xinhua, 10 schools temporarily closed by the blast had reopened on Monday, after repairs to shattered doors and windows.

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