Environmental problems

Citizens air opinions on the Xiamen PX project

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PX site in Haicang, Xiamen.

This week the domestic media turned its eye once again to Xiamen. A hearing yesterday offered the public the chance to air their views on a paraxylene (PX) plant planned by the Xianglu Tenglong Group for the city's Haicang.

Following public outcry that culminated in an anti-PX march in June, an environmental assessment was ordered to determine the effect that the chemical plant would have on the surrounding area.

When the environmental report was made public last week, Xiamen Online launched a poll to measure the public's reaction to the study. The poll was closed the following day after 55,376 of 58,454 votes were cast against the project; the website said that it had neglected to screen for multiple votes cast from the same IP address, rendering the lopsided results invalid.

So this hearing offered a chance to hear a more reliable selection of opinions on the project. One hundred representatives were selected (fifty from the municipal People's Congress and Political Consultative Committee, and fifty from the general public); fifty-seven got a chance to speak yesterday. Forty-five of forty-nine public representatives opposed the project, as did seven of the eight government representatives who had time to speak.

Lian Yue, the columnist who was one of the major promoters of the anti-PX effort earlier this year, posted summaries of the comments of all the representatives who spoke.

The Xianglu Tenglong Group's position (echoed by representative #13) was aired in an open letter published on its website yesterday. Xianglu sees itself as a responsible company, and the PX plant as a safe engineering project using the most advanced technology in the world. It also reminds Xiamen residents that a vinegary smell can be detected long before chemical levels reach national toxicity standards, so just because the plant smells bad doesn't mean that it is polluting. Nevertheless, it will completely eliminate that smell by the end of March, 2008. The letter concludes with a statement that the Haicang Paraxylene project can exist in complete harmony with Xiamen residents.

Most of the speakers took issue with various claims. Residents of Haicang District, where the project is located, described the polluted state of the environment. Even though the company says that it will resolve those air pollution problems by March, 2008, why hasn't it done so before? Can it be trusted with the safety of the Xiamen plant?

Other voices asked questions about the process itself—specifically, the participation of the government and the media. Will the goverment really follow through and enforce its own regulations if the project goes through? The process needs more transparency—why has Xiamen media been so quiet?

People raised the question of why a successful tourist city like Xiamen would want to expand its heavy industry—would the trade-off be worth it? One speaker noted that the PX project was in the flight path of a proposed airport, raising the possibility of a plane crash made more deadly by the chemicals released.

Representatives who supported the project suggested that the dangers were far overstated, the benefits to Xiamen would outweigh any potential problems, the jolt to the economy would keep housing prices down, and if all else failed, Xiamen could simply move people out of Haicang District.

The China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences noted that the decision ultimately rests with the city government, which has the power to designate the primary use of Haicang District on the city's master plan. If it chooses to make Haicang District a "petrochemical industrial district," the project can proceed. But if it decides to make the district a "secondary city center," then the PX project will have to be constructed elsewhere.

Most of the media was barred from attending due to space limitations, but local Xiamen media, along with Xinhua, People's Daily, and Guangming Daily, were admitted. Many other papers and websites cribbed their reports from China Daily's article (which was posted on the CD website in both a English and an Chinese version).

The Beijing News ran China Daily's information under the headline "Over half of Xiamen representatives oppose engineering project in Haicang". Only by reading the article did it become clear that opposing voices made up around 90% of those representatives who spoke.

For a look at how cross-straits relations are involved in the PX debate, see Jonathan Ansfield's report in Newsweek, "Where 'Guanxi' Rules".

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