Surprise as toxic chemical plant in Xiamen is put on hold

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 May, 2007, 12:00am

In a surprise turnaround, authorities in Xiamen, Fujian province, yesterday put on hold plans to build a toxic chemical factory in the city. The decision came just two days before a planned public protest outside government headquarters by residents worried about its environmental and health impact.

'This morning Mayor Liu Cigui told a meeting of the [Communist Party Standing Committee] that a decision has been made to temporarily halt the Haicang PX project,' a city spokesman said.

Many residents dismissed the news as an attempt by officials to defuse opposition days before the highly sensitive anniversary of the June 4 democracy protests 18 years ago.

'It's a trick,' said Xiamen University chemistry professor Zhao Yufen, a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference member who has led the movement against the plant. 'It's because of the demonstration on Friday and I don't believe it.'

Sources in Xiamen say officials have circulated warnings to work units that the date of the demonstration was deliberately chosen to link with the June 4 anniversary.

'Some hostile forces are already meddling and providing funding,' the warnings said, without elaborating. Xiamen residents deny any connection with June 4, saying the date was chosen to mark Children's Day on the mainland.

The 11 billion yuan Tenglong chemical factory, in which Taiwanese businessman Chen Yu-hao has invested, was set to begin operations next year, producing 800,000 tonnes of the flammable chemical p-Xylene a year. City officials hoped it would boost the city's gross domestic product by as much as 80 billion yuan a year, to nearly 200 billion yuan.

P-Xylene - or PX, as locals dub it - is a widely-used chemical found in solvents, paints and varnishes that is also used in plastics. Scientists say in small amounts it causes skin irritation, headaches and breathing difficulties. In large amounts, it causes liver and kidney damage and is suspected of causing cancer.

The government said yesterday it had temporarily halted the project to conduct a more wide-ranging environmental impact assessment, but said it had followed correct procedures in approving the factory, including obtaining the permission of the state-level National Development and Reform Commission.

Tenglong spokeswoman Susan Su declined to comment.

Critics say the 128-hectare plant in the suburb of Haicang, about 7km from the city centre and 3km from large new schools and housing complexes, is an environmental and health disaster waiting to happen. They point to the mainland's poor safety record and multiple accidents in chemicals factories, including a major disaster in PetroChina's Jilin benzene factory in November 2005 where tons of carcinogenic chemical spilled into the Songhua river, forcing the closure of water supplies to downstream Harbin and spreading panic.

Xiamen residents were unsure if they would attend tomorrow's protest. 'We will have to wait and see what this all means,' said one.