Safety checks for plants after protest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2011, 12:00am


More than a month after a mass protest erupted in Dalian over a controversial petrochemical project, Beijing has launched a campaign to review safety risks at similar plants across the country amid mounting health and environmental concerns.

Analysts say the belated move is apparently aimed at defusing tensions between local governments and rights-conscious mainlanders, encouraged by the Dalian protest, who wanted to stage their own rallies to resolve environmental disputes.

The nationwide checks were also prompted by Premier Wen Jiabao, who warned during a trip to the northeastern port city about two weeks ago of the grave danger posed by processing of hazardous chemicals, including the toxic chemical at the centre of the Dalian controversy - paraxylene, commonly known as PX.

Tens of thousands of Dalian residents took to the streets on August 14 in a rare outpouring of public anger after the city of six million narrowly avoided a major chemical spill at a suburban PX plant. Analysts have warned that similar protests over pollution fears may erupt in more than a dozen mainland cities, including Nanjing and Shanghai, where similar projects are being built or are operating close to populated areas.

Five ministries, including the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, are involved in the campaign, which began on Thursday. Local authorities will be required to review and plug safety loopholes in petrochemical projects involving PX and other hazardous chemicals, The Beijing News said.

NDRC officials were quoted by the newspaper as saying that the authorities intend to strengthen the approval process for PX projects by raising environmental standards.

Local governments must stay alert as widespread safety and pollution accidents involving PX projects in recent years have 'caused negative social impact and sparked protests and unrest', one official said.

However, analysts cautioned that the campaign might not be effective, because it largely relied on selfexamination by local governments.

Ma Tianjie, a Greenpeace China pollution campaigner, said such a campaign, often seen after major industrial accidents, was unlikely to make a difference given the absence of effective measures to rein in local authorities blindly pursuing economic development.

'It may help a bit, but like previous pollution-control storms, it won't be able to achieve much in the long term because it fails to set up functional mechanisms to address mounting pollution woes,' Ma said.

The Dalian protest forced authorities to promise to shut down and relocate the PX plant, which cost more than 60 billion yuan (HK$72.72 billion). But local authorities have yet to unveil a timetable for its relocation and the plant appears to be still operating, according to mainland media.