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UPDATED: August 10, 2014 NO. 51 DECEMBER 19, 2013
Underground Pipeline Peril
China's underground pipeline network requires more efficient management and supervision
By Yin Pumin

THE LIFE LINES: Workers lay heating lines underground in Qingdao, Shandong Province, on November 27, soon after the accident (FENG JIE)

A recent explosion has raised questions about the design and management of China's underground oil pipelines.

The explosion took place in Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province, on November 22 after crude oil leaked from an underground pipeline operated by China Petrochemical Corp., also known as Sinopec, one of the country's largest petroleum companies. As of December 3, the blast had claimed 62 lives and injured more than 100 others.

Yang Dongliang, Director of the State Administration of Work Safety and head of a team leading the investigation into the incident, commented on November 25 that the accident had exposed the irrational layout of oil pipelines and urban drainage pipes as well as the negligence of duty in pipeline supervision and the unprofessional handling of oil leaks prior to the blast.

On November 28, the State Administration of Work Safety decided to conduct a nationwide check of oil pipelines and urban underground pipelines. Focus will be put on seven factors, including pipeline design, quality, protection measures, supervision, responsibility, emergency planning and daily management, according to the administration.

Poor planning

According to media reports, the Qingdao blast not only led to large amounts of casualties but also damaged nearby roads and buildings, which has aroused questions about the design of the oil pipeline and whether or not it should have been so close to a residential area.

"In theory, oil pipelines must be built far from places where people live to avoid an accident such as this one," said Dai Shenzhi, a professor with the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Shanghai-based Tongji University.

According to Dai, underground pipelines can be divided into two types—production pipelines and living pipelines. "Oil pipelines and those used to transport gases to and from chemical factories belong to the production class. They must be built in special pipe corridors," he said.

After the accident, Qingdao Municipal Government admitted that the city's underground pipelines are complicated and there are faults in their design. According to the government, the explosion occurred when workers were clearing the crude oil leaking from an underground pipeline. The spill also seeped into the city's rainwater pipe network, which empties into the Jiaozhou Bay.

Guo Jishan, Deputy Secretary General of Qingdao Municipal Government, said there was a concentration of different oil pipelines and dangerous pipes and the explosion of one would affect others.

Deng Daoming, an associate professor with the Beijing-based China University of Petroleum, said that oil pipelines should be kept at least 30 meters away from residential areas and also laid at a distance from the municipal pipe network, which includes drainage, gas and thermal pipelines, to avoid the failure of one pipeline affecting the operation of others.

"But in east China, where land is so precious, sometimes local authorities' urban planning is lax and they crave economic gains," Deng said.

Fast urbanization puts further pressure on underground pipelines. During China's rapid development, the number of underground pipelines for drainage, electricity, communications, natural gas and heating has increased at an astonishing speed.

According to the official data of Qingdao, at least 11 different types of pipelines have been laid under the city's Huangdao Island, where the November 22 blast happened.

However, planning methods for networks of underground pipelines lag behind urban development, with the sharp increase in pipelines causing crowding underground, said Pan Jiahua, Director of the Urban and Environmental Studies Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The problem of focusing on construction while neglecting the management of the underground pipeline system also needs attention, according to Guo Jinsong, a researcher in urban construction at Chongqing University.

Luo Yameng, President of the China City International Association who has done on-site investigation in Qingdao, said that Qingdao has over-development issues due to inappropriate city planning and construction.

"Huangdao Island was uninhabited when the pipeline blueprint came out. We should build and lay the pipelines in accordance with land safety evaluations, and the pipelines were designed and installed when it was barren land instead of a developed region," Deng explained.

The rapid development of urbanization in China has led to excessive construction of buildings as well as poor planning and management of underground pipe networks, Dai added. "In fact, building and maintaining underground pipelines must also be included in a city's infrastructure."

"In reality, authorities always attach more significance to what looks good on the outside, but focus less on the pipelines buried underground," Dai sighed.

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