The future of a petrochemical plant in Dalian that was at the centre of a toxic pollution scare four months ago is again shrouded in uncertainty, with the local government confirming that the controversial project has been allowed to resume production despite widespread opposition.
Top local officials had pledged to shut and relocate Dalian Fujia Petrochemical's plant after tens of thousands of residents took to the streets on August 14 in a rare display of defiance and public anger.
The protest, which shocked the local government and Beijing, was widely hailed as a landmark success for environmentally aware mainlanders, whose pollution fears and health concerns have rarely been taken seriously by development-minded mainland authorities.
But that assessment now appears to have been premature.
An official with Dalian's propaganda department said yesterday that it remained unclear when the plant, which has been processing paraxylene - the toxic chemical at the heart of the controversy - since 2009, could be relocated.
Paraxylene, commonly known as PX, is widely used in paints and plastics. Although scientists are unable to say categorically whether it is a carcinogen, they say it can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, and chronic exposure may result in death.
The official flatly denied widespread speculation that local authorities had overturned the decision to relocate the plant because of its lucrative revenues.
'The whole relocation plan is still on track, but it needs a lot of time and there is no timetable yet,' she said.
Built at a cost of more than 60 billion yuan (HK$73 billion) and with annual production of 700,000 tonnes of PX, the plant is among the top five PX producers on the mainland.
In Dalian, the chemical is produced about 20 kilometres upwind from the city centre.
The official confirmed the plant had recently been allowed to resume operations because a panel of national and local experts had concluded that it posed no major pollution risks.
Citing insiders from the plant, China Business News said operations were only briefly suspended in early September and resumed later that month. Industry experts told the paper that producing PX could be highly profitable. The plant would suffer an estimated loss of US$80 million a month if it suspended operations, the paper said.
The news about the resumption of PX production at the plant shocked locals and environmentalists, who blasted the local government for reneging on its promise.
A local resident, who declined to be named, said he and his friends felt betrayed again by the local authorities, who had intimidated those who participated in the August protest. They have also banned discussions about the plant by censoring mobile phones and the internet.
'We're extremely concerned about the PX project, which is like a bomb above our head waiting to go off,' the resident said.
'We cannot help but wonder if the local government's promises about shutting down and relocating the plant were just a delaying tactic to defuse tensions.'
He also complained about a rapid deterioration of the environment in the port city, which has seen a petrochemical boom in the past decade.
Professor Zhao Zhangyuan, an environmental researcher, said: 'It was hard to believe that local authorities secretly gave the go-ahead to the project at the expense of the environment and public health.'