Chemical plant on a giant scale

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am

Confidential information obtained by the Post shows the proposed Tenglong chemical plant in Xiamen is far bigger than previously believed, with plans to store up to 14 times more dangerous chemicals than announced.

According to publicly available information, the giant plant will produce 800,000 tonnes of toxic p-Xylene per year, plus 'sidelines' in several other chemicals. But according to confidential documents held by the State Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) in Beijing, notes of which were seen by the Post, the total amount of chemicals at the plant and its dedicated shipping terminal at any one time could be as high as 11 million tonnes.

Half of that would be stored at the Haicang site, with a 'similar' amount held at the terminal being built in the middle of a white dolphin nature reserve. This includes raw materials and finished product, with stockpiles to ensure smooth delivery and operations.

The information was contained in an environmental impact assessment the authorities have not made publicly available, despite numerous requests from reporters and the public.

The documents also show that in addition to p-Xylene, which is used in paints, solvents and polyesters, and can cause respiratory problems, and liver and kidney damage, the plant will produce 238,000 tonnes per year of benzene, a carcinogen that flooded the Songhua river in Jilin province after an explosion at a PetroChina plant in 2005, shutting down water supplies to the city of Harbin .

Yet despite the vast scale of the plant, to be built less than 2km from human habitation and 7km from downtown Xiamen, the national environment authorities in Beijing approved the project without objection, say critics.

'Partly that's because China's environmental impact assessment [EIA system is a mere formality, and partly it's because of corruption. Too many people looked away,' said Zhao Yufen , professor of chemistry at Xiamen University and a leading anti-plant campaigner.

Sepa officials in Beijing declined to comment.

The mainland's EIA system is a 'paper tiger', said Zhang Jingjing, of the Centre for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims at the China University of Political Science and Law. 'It's extremely rare for a project to be stopped on environmental grounds.'

Partly this is because investors commission the EIA, and the company carrying out the report is only paid when it's passed, giving a strong incentive to present material in a positive light.

The government needs to urgently set up a system of independent assessment, said Mr Zhang, but argues it does not have the money.

In addition, the public needs to be included in the EIA process, giving them a say on new projects, said Mr Zhang. 'That's what happens overseas now and it's a way to ensure that the voice of the people is heard.'

Meanwhile, shaken by two days of demonstrations against the plant in early June, a fact-finding mission headed by a deputy head of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which answers to the State Council in Beijing, travelled to Xiamen on June 7 to investigate, the Post has learned.

In a move designed to chastise Xiamen Party Secretary He Lifeng , who backed the project, the delegation chief stayed in Fuzhou , capital of surrounding Fujian province , and sent a junior messenger to Xiamen to meet Mr He and other officials.

'It was a slap on the bottom for the local authorities in Xiamen,' said a reliable source in Beijing.

Informed sources in Xiamen said after the NDRC's intervention the plant has close to zero chance of going ahead in its present location, but have called for continued vigilance by residents.