Protest prompts shutdown of Chinese chemical plant in NE China city

Tropical storm Mufia leaves a dike breached near the Fujia parayxlene plant in Dalian on August 8.

Authorities in China’s northeastern city of Dalian ordered a chemical plant to be “immediately” shut down after a dozen thousand residents took to the city’s streets on Sunday to demand that the plant be relocated over concerns of potential toxic chemical leaks.

   The authorities also pledged to relocate the controversial Fujia Chemical Plant, the Dalian City Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the city government said in a statement issued six hours after the protest broke out.

   Some of the protesters were seen leaving a packed public square in front of the city government offices and main urban streets.

   The protest started with a small crowd sitting in front of the office buildings around 10 a.m. and quickly grew from there. Protesters chanted “Fujia (the chemical plant), get out!” “Serve the people”, sang the national anthem and displayed banners printed with the phrases “we want to survive” and “we want a good environment.”

   Scuffles with police broke out, although there were no reports of injuries. At one point, protesters threw bottles of mineral water at police who tried to cordon off a section of a major road that passes near the square. They relented after police backed down.

   Before giving the order to shut down the plant,  Dalian’s Communist Party chief Tang Jun and mayor Li Wancai tried to appease the crowd by promising to move the plant out, but protesters demanded a clear timetable for relocation.

Ticking the bomb
   The plant is a producer of paraxylene (PX), a carcinogenic petrochemical used to create raw materials for the production of polyester film and fabrics.

   Calls to relocate the plant mounted this week after large waves whipped up by tropical storm Muifa breached a dike near the plant. The dike was built to protect the plant from floodwaters. Residents were concerned that a potential flood could damage the plant and cause it to release toxic chemicals.

   The breached dike has been repaired and no chemical leaks have been reported, but the demands for relocation still gathered steam. Calls for street protests rapidly circulated on the Internet.

   Sunday’s protest resembled a similar move by residents of China’s southeastern city of Xiamen in 2007 to call for the relocation of a Taiwanese-funded PX plant. The plant was eventually moved out of the city.

   Similar to Xiamen, Dalian is a coastal city known for its sandy beaches and clean air.

   “Dalian is China’s ‘garden city.’ The plant, located only 20 km away from the city center, is like a time bomb,” said a protester surnamed Wang.

   “If it is not moved now, Dalian will be destroyed,” he added.

   Another resident surnamed Li blamed the local government for approving the construction of new industrial facilities without considering their potential environmental impact.

   The city government held an emergency meeting on Aug. 9 to discuss relocation plans. The city’s top officials ordered a thorough assessment of the plant’s safety with a report backed by “scientific and responsible” explanations.

   The chemical plant was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission in 2005. It is a joint venture between the state-owned Dalian Chemical Group and the private Fujia Group, a local real estate giant.

   The plant, one of China’s largest PX producers, went into operation in 2009 and is capable of producing 700,000 tonnes of the compound annually, according to the company website. The plant contributes 2 billion yuan (about 311 million U.S.
dollars) to the local government in the form of taxes every year.

   A report from the National Development and Reform Commission showed that the country built six PX plants between 2006 and 2010, bringing the total number of Chinese PX plants to 14. The plants are located in regions across China, including the provinces of Fujian, Liaoning and Henan and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Mounting public doubts
   The dike breach called into question the safety of Dalian’s industrial projects. When towering waves broke two sections of the dike, the surging water was only 50 meters away from tanks holding the toxic chemicals.

   Internet users in Dalian complained on the Chinese Twitter-like service Sina Weibo that facilities like the PX project shall be best located 100 km away from a city. The Fujia plant turned out to be built in an industrial zone only 20 km from the city center.

   “There were already doubts and controversy when the project was approved and started operation,” an Internet user said. “But many more people simply did not know such a project was being constructed in their neighborhood from the very start.”

   “The truth was withheld from the public. We didn’t know about how toxic it could be. Now, the relocation could not wait any more,” he said.

   The PX project was a priority development in the province of Liaoning, as part of a massive campaign to revitalize China’s rusty old industrial belt in the northeast, local media reported, saying the project helps Liaoning complete the “golden” industrial chain from crude oil refinement to petrochemical industries.

   About 38 large petrochemical companies are located in Dagushan industrial zone with Fujia Chemical, the 21st Century Economic Report newspaper said. The report cited an industry insider as saying that the relocation of Dalian’s chemical industry base would take a long time.

   Serious doubts were raised about China’s fast-growing sectors after last month’s fatal train collision in eastern Zhejiang Province. Two high-speed trains on a line near the eastern city of Wenzhou collided on July 23, which left 40 people dead.

   The government blamed the incident on faulty signaling equipment, but public anger was boiling over the safety of the country’s booming rail transport sector as the Ministry of Railways fast upgraded infrastructure and hiked train speeds for several times over the past few years.

   The State Council, or China’s Cabinet, ordered safety checks on high-speed railways, as well as slower operational speeds, at an executive meeting presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao last week.

   Dalian’s petrochemical industry has its own bad safety record.

   Improper desulfurizer injections into an oil pipeline exploded near a Dalian crude oil storage port in July last year. The explosion caused a blaze that took 15 hours to extinguish and caused an oil spill that “seriously polluted” 11 square km of sea and slightly affected 50 square km of sea.

   Thick slicks of oil floated on the ocean surface and the city’s beaches were closed for days. Workers rushing to shore up the leaked oil successfully blocked the spill to enter international waters.

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