Berkshire Hathaway

Near-miss at toxic chemical plant

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2011, 12:00am


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Authorities in Dalian claimed a victory in narrowly avoiding a disastrous chemical spill yesterday, amid public panic and calls for a reassessment of risks in pushing ahead with large petrochemical projects along the coast of Bohai Sea.

Xinhua reported disaster loomed as waves from tropical storm Muifa of up to 20 metres breached a half-built dyke early yesterday morning, threatening a controversial petrochemical plant less than 50 metres away.

Local government officials scrambled to send more than 1,000 firefighters, troops and border guards to prevent seawater from flooding around 20 metal tanks containing toxic chemicals. From 6am at least 400 truck-loads of rocks and concrete were used to repair two breaches, each between 20 and 30 metres long.

By early yesterday evening, the local government said, the dyke had been temporarily repaired.

But a government spokesman was quoted by Xinhua as warning that the half-built dyke was still at risk of further breaches as Muifa continued battering China's northeastern coast. 'Workers still fear that the strong waves might wash away the loosely piled rocks and breach the dyke again,' the spokesman said.

Xinhua said residents living near the Jinshan Industrial Zone, where the Fujia Group's chemical plant is located, were evacuated.

Authorities have yet to identify the chemicals in the 20 tanks, saying only that workers had tried to divert toxic oil-based chemicals through pipelines, to avoid further risks.

Each year the Fujia plant, which has been shrouded by controversy since 2005, produces 700,000 tonnes of paraxylene, or PX as locals dub it, a toxic petrochemical used in paints and plastics. Despite widespread fears about its safety and health impact, the project, which cost over 9 billion yuan (HK$10.87 billion), was allowed to be built on reclaimed land.

Both the petrochemical company and Fujia declined to comment.

Many Dalian residents voiced anger over the incident, saying it was time to rethink building large petrochemical projects in the city, citing the case in Xiamen two years ago. Authorities there had to scrap a plan to build a PX plant following protests by thousands of people.

'It was another narrow miss of man-made disasters and we can't help but wondering if we can be this lucky next time,' said a resident on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmentalist, said the breach exposed the risk of developing petrochemical projects in coastal areas.

'It is obvious that those projects are more prone to natural disasters such as typhoons and tsunamis,' he said, noting that authorities had apparently overlooked such risks when carrying out the mandatory environmental impact assessment.

He noted that authorities in Dalian had yet to explain the PetroChina spill last year, which killed at least one fireman and cost hundreds of fish farmers 90 million yuan in losses.