Wary Haimen waits for answers on power plant

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am


After a week of protests in front of the Haimen town government complex and the nearby Shenzhen-Shantou expressway, people are resuming the normal routines of small-town life.

But there is an undercurrent of fear running through the town. Residents are concerned that those involved in the protests could still be detained. They are also concerned about pollution that has affected their livelihoods and health, and they are doubtful over government assurances that plans for a new coal-fired power plant, which sparked the protests, have been shelved.

The area in front of the government complex has been quiet for days and the signs of rioting cleared away. The last time people gathered at the building was on Monday afternoon, when dozens of residents, mostly women and the elderly, asked the government to release those who had been detained. One person was released that evening, villagers said.

People said more than a dozen Haimen residents had been detained, mostly youngsters active in the protests, and two were still in detention.

'The government people pushed back those asking for their release,' said one resident. 'Some filmed the gathering with video cameras. We don't know what they intend to do with the footage.'

A father playing with his young child on the grass in front of the gate later in the week expressed anger and helplessness when asked about the power plant.

'Obviously the government did wrong. How could it build two giant power plants in such a small town?' he asked. Around 150,000 people live in Haimen, a town under the jurisdiction of Chaoyang district, Shantou. He refused to say more, because 'we all have kids at home and don't want to be taken away by the police'.

One fisherman said talking about residents' concerns about pollution to outsiders could lead to detention by police. Young people also worried that commenting about the protests and pollution online or in phone conversations and text messages could get them into trouble.

People living in Haimen say thick smoke from the two giant chimneys of the town's existing power plant, operated by the industry giant Huaneng in Hongdong village, is visible day and night.

'When the east wind blows, you can smell something being burned,' a government worker said.

People are also worried that the wastewater discharged by the Huaneng plant has killed the seafood which the town's fishermen rely on for a living.

Caixin magazine reported in November that concentrations of chemicals such as lead, zinc and nickel, in the seawater near the Huaneng plant exceeded national standards.

A seafood restaurant boss said most of the seafood he sold was bought from Shantou city, with only a small amount purchased in town. 'There isn't much good seafood in town,' he said.

At the port of Lianjiang, where most of the town's fishing boats are anchored, fishermen said the pollution had reduced their catch, and another power plant was totally unacceptable.

'Wastewater discharged from the power plant had tainted the seawater. Both the variety and number of fish have decreased dramatically over the years,' one complained. 'Large quantities of fish eggs have died and big fish have left the area because of the pollution.'

Seven out of 10 people in the town used to be fishermen, according to government reports. Now most full-time fishermen are in their 50s and 60s. Many young people have abandoned fishing and work as migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta.

A seafood trader said the pollution could not be blamed on the Huaneng power plant alone. He said another power plant, in nearby Huilai county, and paper-making and cloth-dying factories in neighbouring towns also discharged toxins into the sea.

The trader said the number of people in town getting cancer and dying in their 30s, 40s or 50s had appeared to be on the rise in recent years: 'I know five people who died of cancers in the past five years.'

Residents said cancer patients were sent to hospitals in Shantou because the hospital in town was not advanced enough to treat such deadly diseases. But major hospitals in Shantou say they do not keep records that could show whether the number of cancer patients from Haimen was increasing.

Fishermen are also concerned that construction of the new power plant could block views of a statue of a local god believed to bless and protect fishermen at sea. It would be built on the southern slope of Jianshan mountain, and the statue of the god is on top of the mountain.

Shantou's city government said it has suspended plans for the new plant, which would have been operated by Huadian, another industry giant, and is reporting to higher-level authorities.

But it is unlikely that those behind the power plant, which would involve a total investment of 5.7 billion yuan (HK$7 billion), will give up easily. A total of 218 million yuan had already been spent by August, with construction originally expected to start next year in Hongdong village and the plant put into operation in 2014, the Shantou Daily reported

'The launch of the project will significantly help build the power base for east Guangdong province,' it said on October 22, the day after the groundbreaking ceremony for the new plant.

The existing Huaneng power plant also has expansion plans, with a recruitment notice still available online saying that it has three generators in operation is building a fourth and has plans for two more. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has ordered Huaneng to suspend operation of the third power unit and construction of the fourth until they are approved by the ministry, Caixin reported.

'We are waiting for the government to give us an answer,' one Haimen resident said. 'If the government insists on setting up the power plant, we will take to the streets again.'

A 20-year-old woman added: 'We don't have any organisers. We Haimen people are of one heart.'