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Clumsy cover-up of toxic spill has again damaged public trust

  • The habit of cover-ups that put officials’ political interests first seems to die hard
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 10:37pm

Rapid economic growth can lead to industrial mishaps that impact on the environment. When people’s health may be involved, officials must convey a sense of urgency and openness about any risks. Trust, essential to good governance and public morale, is at stake. It is therefore disappointing that a clumsy cover-up of contamination of air and water leading to the hospitalisation of dozens and the loss of fish farms has damaged trust among people in the Fujian city of Quanzhou. The circumstances are reminiscent of a time when a mindset of economic growth at any price was more prevalent.

Lies and fears: how a chemical leak in China spilled out of control

Villagers in Quangang, a district of Quanzhou, are angry over the handling of a spill from a petrochemical plant during a transfer to a vessel, which authorities first said was just oil. Many are asking if they were more concerned about downplaying and covering up the leak of the chemical C9, a by-product of oil refining, than fully informing the public and tackling the problem. They are also concerned that it may be more dangerous than they have been told and that a shoddy clean-up could have harmed children who were told to continue to attend school.

In an area where chemical manufacturing and fish farming are two of the biggest industries, oil stains in fish farms and nearby seawater raised fears that tens of tonnes of C9 were leaked, compared with the official version of less than seven. Residents of the small fishing village of Xiaocou were alerted to the spill by a strong odour in the early hours of a Sunday morning. By evening, the local environment protection bureau said the clean-up operation was “basically complete” and chemical levels in the affected area were within safe limits. Two days later the bureau said water quality was suitable for fish farming. Two days after that, officials admitted 52 people had been hospitalised with symptoms such as nausea, dizziness or pneumonia after inhaling the chemical. They included fish farmers trying to save their livelihoods.

China chemical spill: 7 arrested as fishermen wait for payout

Now the farmers are facing a legal battle for compensation for losses of stock and business. All this after residents alerted the authorities to toxic pollution fears on the day of the spill. It will be some days before tests reveal just how harmful the leak may have been. Meanwhile, the Quangang district government has announced a number of arrests among petrochemical company employees and tanker crew. But there is no news of officials being disciplined. In the event of a potential health risk, it is they who should raise the alarm and put public safety first. Regrettably, the habit of cover-ups that put officials’ political interests first seems to die hard.

To eradicate it Beijing should consider more effective monitoring of officials’ performance after serious incidents and a punishment mechanism to deter cover-ups and encourage openness.