The Dalian city government's offer to consider relocating a controversial petrochemical plant that narrowly averted a major chemical spill during a typhoon last week has been met with growing public suspicion that the rare concession is only a last-ditch effort to stifle calls for protest rallies today.
The Fujia petrochemical plant was almost inundated by huge waves as Tropical Storm Muifa tore through the city on Monday. Officials rushed more than 1,000 firefighters, troops and border guards to prevent seawater from flooding some 20 metal tanks containing toxic chemicals, and at least 400 truckloads of rocks and concrete were poured into two breaches of the sea wall.
Public distrust of the government further intensified when mainland media reported that the petrochemical plant might have been allowed to operate illegally months before it received mandatory environmental approval.
According to Southern Metropolis News, the Fujia plant started full-scale production in June 2009, but it did not get the go-ahead from the Liaoning environmental protection bureau until April last year.
If confirmed, analysts said the news would deal another blow to beleaguered local authorities, who have been accused of protecting the controversial plant while failing to take adequate measures to tackle huge safety and environmental risks.
The city government has so far insisted there has been no wrongdoing, saying its approval of the plant complied with environmental laws.
All major industrial and infrastructure projects on the mainland must undergo environmental assessments upon completion of construction before they can go into operation.
But mainland environmentalists say a great number of government-backed projects are virtually exempt from such provisions.
A senior environmental analyst familiar with the approval process said the case in Dalian was not unusual.
'It is appalling that a lot of big projects, including several new airports, high-speed rail links and a vast majority of the newly built large steel factories, have failed to go through necessary environmental checks but are allowed, in many cases, to operate illegally for years,' he said.
According to the analyst, the long list of projects that have operated without final environmental approval includes the new terminals at Beijing Capital International Airport, Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport and the busy high-speed rail link between Qingdao and Jinan .
The Ministry of Environmental Protection issued an order in June calling a halt to the operation of the rail link that opened in 2008, saying it was illegal without its final go-ahead.
Like the airports in Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou's new Baiyun airport, which opened in 2004, has failed to obtain environmental approval, and there had been rampant complaints of aircraft noise by nearby residents.
'All those projects are virtually unfettered by law and this is the reality of lawlessness in China,' said the analyst who refused to be named.
'But we should ask what has gone wrong when laws and regulations can not be implemented.'
The Fujia plant in Dalian, which produces paraxylene, or PX, is a case in point.
Listed as one of six priority projects in Dalian, the plant - which produces 700,000 tonnes a year of PX - was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission in 2005 and its construction kicked off the same year. With a total investment of more than 60 billion yuan (HK$73.3 billion), the factory is tipped to become the country's biggest producer of the toxic chemical, which is widely used in paints and plastics but is carcinogenic in cases of large exposure.
Locals complain that they were kept in the dark about the controversial PX project until it was fully operational in 2009.
The country's top environmental watchdog has warned against a large concentration of chemical projects, including the PX plant, on the Dagushan Peninsula, which is 20 kilometres from the populated city centre, listing the area as 'an accident-prone location that requires close monitoring'.
The anger of local residents was raised further when the Xiamen authorities were forced to scrap a similar PX project in 2009 after thousands of people in the city took to the streets.
Resentment in Dalian against the project has simmered over the past two years and came to a boil last week when the residents were told their lives had been put at risk by the plant after Tropical Storm Muifa breached a protective dyke early on Monday morning.
It triggered panic in the city of 6 million people and prompted accusations of government collusion with the polluter at the expense of public health and the environment, with calls for protests emerging on the internet.
Such unusually open calls for protest rallies apparently hit a raw nerve among stability-obsessed local officials, and the announcement of whether the Fujia plant would be relocated is likely to be announced soon.
Rumours were rife that the PX project was likely to be moved 100 kilometres north to Changxing island, where the Dalian government and the Fujia group, the parent company of the PX plant, have already planned another massive petrochemical project.
The Fujia Group signed an agreement last year with the US-based Honeywell Speciality Materials Group to start building the 40 billion yuan ethylene plant later this year.
Despite the talks about the relocation of the PX plant, which may take a decade to happen, analysts said there were few signs that Dalian authorities would scale back their ambition of developing petrochemical industries on a massive scale.
The total economic output of the Dalian's petrochemical sector, excluding pharmaceuticals, reached 180 billion yuan by last year.