Paraxylene (PX)

China chemical plant fire roars back to life, fanning environmental fears

Fujian officials say there is no sign of contamination but environmentalist claims pollution could take months to surface

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 April, 2015, 11:03am

A blaze at a Fujian chemical plant roared back to life last night several hours after it was reportedly extinguished, fanning fears over public safety and environmental fallout from controversial petrochemical projects.

State broadcaster CCTV reported that some firefighters were recalled to the paraxylene (PX) plant in Zhangzhou after fires restarted at 7.40pm, despite officials saying at 4.40pm that fires burning in three massive storage tanks had been put out.

Watch: Initial blaze at Fujian chemcial plant 

The fires started after oil leaked at the Dragon Aromatics facility on the Gulei Peninsula at around 6.50pm on Monday, Xinhua reported, citing the results of an initial investigation.

Six people were sent to hospital for injuries, and another 13 people sustained minor injuries, CCTV reported.

It was the second explosion at the plant in two years.

Provincial and city environmental officials said there were no signs of contamination from the blast in surrounding waters or villages downwind.

But Ma Tianjie, programme director at Greepeace in Beijing, said that it could take up to six months to determine if there was any environmental contamination, such as pollution of underground water. He said foams used to extinguish the fires also posed threats.

Ma said an environmental assessment report released before the plant was built described underground water in that area as "easily contaminated".

"Petrochemical projects in China are usually huge, so whenever there is an accident, the damage can be severe," Ma said.

Witnesses reported a strong smell after the blast but the authorities did not say if any toxic chemicals other than PX were released into the atmosphere.

About 400 Gulei residents were relocated to nearby areas, including Tongling township, about 6km from the peninsula.

A employee at the Dongshan Haiyue Hotel in Tongling told the South China Morning Post that residents from the peninsula had booked into the hotel.

The employee said the plant was to be built in Dongshan county but large protests, in which some people were detained, prompted the site to be changed to Gulei.

"Our impression is that PX is dangerous. Everybody said that," the hotel worker said.

"I heard that people in Gulei also protested, but some just moved away in return for compensation."

The plant was initially planned for Xiamen , also in Fujian, but relocated after residents mounted huge demonstrations in 2007 over fears that its operations could cause cancer. The protests marked the first of a series of not-in-my-backyard environmental movements against mainland PX projects, which industry experts say have stalled PX production.

State media have sought to reassure the public that the chemical is no more toxic than coffee, with experts also calling for the public to be more "rational" and "believe in science".

But Monday's blast, the second within two years at the plant, rekindled the public debate, with many questioning the facility's high accident rates.

Citing an anonymous industry source, Caijing magazine blamed a lack of investment in safety and poor oversight for the repeated blasts.

Paraxylene is a chemical used in the manufacture of polyester clothing and plastic bottles, and is dangerous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Watch: Fire continued burning despite claims it was out