Paraxylene (PX)

Zhangzhou chemical plant blast highlights safety fears

Explosion during testing comes on same day party paper played down dangers of industry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 4:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 9:55am

A paraxylene (PX) plant exploded in Fujian province yesterday - just as the Communist Party's main mouthpiece was publishing an article highlighting the industry's safety record.

Although the blast in Zhangzhou had no reported casualties or toxic leaks, it is likely to renew safety and environmental concerns over the country's PX plants. Such facilities have been a growing target of protests, despite the state media's efforts to reassure the public.

The 4.30am explosion occurred after hydrogen leaked from a pipeline's welding seam during a pressure test at the plant, which is owned by Dragon Aromatics (Zhangzhou), the city government said.

Local media reported that the 13.8 billion yuan (HK$17.3 billion) project began trial production of PX last month. The plant is projected to make 800,000 tonnes of the chemical, which is commonly used for making polyester.

The government said the leaky pipeline was not yet in use and had been successfully tested with nitrogen last week.

A Xingzai village resident, who lives less than one kilometre from the plant, said the concussive force of the explosion shattered windows and cracked walls and ceilings at her newly built home.

Flames shot as much as 50 metres into the air, according to some local media accounts, but was swiftly put out by firefighters, said local government. The local government said there had been no chemical leaks.

The PX project was originally planned for the densely populated coastal city of Xiamen , in Fujian, but massive protests by local residents fearing potential health hazards forced government to relocate the project to a less-populated area in Zhangzhou.

The blast coincided with a report in yesterday's People's Daily, saying PX projects had a relatively good safety record on the mainland and elsewhere.

"There were no major safety accidents reported since 1985, when the country's first PX plant was put into production," Li Junfa, chief engineer at China National Petroleum and Chemical Planning Institute, was quoted as saying. He said more than 10 PX production facilities were currently functioning properly around the country.

The newspaper ran a full-page report last month ensuring its readers PX was "no more harmful than coffee", in a bid to defuse public fear of the industry, following a string of protests against PX projects in cities including Chengdu and Kunming earlier this year.

Li Bo , a senior adviser with the environmental advocacy group Friends of Nature, said the blast proved that safety and environmental fears were "not ungrounded".

"It comes as a wake-up call for authorities that simply bragging about the industry's safety could not defuse public concerns, but enhanced supervision and transparency can," Li Bo said. "This accident also sheds some light on the construction-quality problems of petrochemical projects."