It is remarkable that no one was killed in the explosion and fire at a controversial petrochemical plant in Zhangzhou , Fujian province, and even more so that only six people are reported to have been sent to hospital. But in different circumstances that were once entirely plausible, the consequences might have been far worse. Eight years ago plans to build the billion-dollar plant in densely populated Xiamen , also in Fujian, prompted a rare display of middle-class activism by local residents, who mounted protests over fears that perceived harmful pollutants from its operations could cause cancer. Such defiance, exceptional at the time, attracted wide attention and eventually persuaded the authorities to withdraw and relocate the project in the Gulei peninsula, nearly 100km away. Since then local governments have had to contend with the sensitivities of chemical plants that produce paraxylene, or PX, used in the manufacture of polyester clothing and plastic bottles, which is dangerous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. In the face of protests they have abandoned plans to build them in a number of cities, including Ningbo and Dalian . The Xiamen protests marked the first of a series of not-in-my-backyard environmental movements long commonplace in Western societies, which industry experts say have stalled PX production. People remain unconvinced by state media assertions that the chemical is no more toxic than coffee and by reports that experts have called on the public to be more "rational" and "believe in science". Monday's blast, the second within two years at the plant, has only fuelled the public debate, with many questioning the facility's high accident rates. Though government environmental officials say there were no signs of contamination from the blast in surrounding waters or villages downwind, Greenpeace says it could take months to detect effects such as pollution of underground water. The plant's poor record raises questions about investment in plant safety and operational oversight that need to be addressed at the policy and regulatory level. It is also a reminder that the days are long gone when industrial plants can be foisted on communities without informed consent based on verifiable safeguards for the quality of air and water. Industrial development remains crucial for growth and shared prosperity, but it has to be reconciled with protection of the environment through transparency and community consultation at every stage of planning and construction.