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Taking a stand on PX

By Liu Sha Source:Global Times Published: 2013-5-29 23:53:01

People gather in the center of Kunming to oppose the construction of a petrochemical plant by the China National Petroleum Corporation in Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, on May 4, 2013. Photo: IC
People gather in the center of Kunming to oppose the construction of a petrochemical plant by the China National Petroleum Corporation in Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, on May 4, 2013. Photo: IC

Local authorities in Kunming, Yunnan Province, Wednesday denied rumors that they had banned sales of white T-shirts in an effort to prevent them from being used in protests against an oil refinery and paraxylene (PX) project.

For a "rumor" the crackdown seemed all too real to local factory owner Zhang Ping, 40, whose factory has been the subject of an investigation over the last week because it produced white T-shirts emblazoned with "I love health," which authorities suspected were to be used in a protest.

"Banning white T-shirts alone may have been a rumor, but words like 'PX,' 'clean air' and 'health' are certainly sensitive," Zhang said.

Although the local publicity department's statement also said the government would scrap policies requiring people to provide their real names when requesting bulk printing jobs at photocopy shops, it still emphasized that printed products that could have negative effects on social stability should be regulated.

Xiao Bian, a local resident who claimed to be a citizen representative of the first protest on May 4, when 3,000 residents took to the street, told the Global Times that the government was overreacting.

"With the government announcing that the project will benefit the city's economy and promising they're going to control pollution, we're not against the project itself, but we hope the government will publicly disclose the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report and honestly discuss the location of the site with residents, to prove that they are reliable and will respect residents' opinions," he said.

The confidential EIA

Local residents have been up in arms since the official announcement of the project in March.

Previous PX plant announcements in Ningbo and Xiamen prompted fierce local resistance, forcing the local governments to give up on the projects, and Kunming residents hoped to have the same result.

However, as one part of a larger China-Myanmar oil pipeline scheme that was settled over four years ago, residents face tougher odds this time.

The government held two meetings with resident representatives and reassured them that the pollution would be controlled, however they refused to disclose details of the EIA, which residents saw as the key evidence proving whether or not the project would be safe.

The EIA report was passed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in July; and this January, the project was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission.

Ma Xiaojia, director of the provincial energy administration, said the report was "confidential."

"The project is related to the energy safety and contains many safety secrets that could not be published," said Zhou Dekun, a local Party secretary in Caopu township, Anning, a city under Kunming's administration, where the oil refinery project will be located.

Zhou told the Global Times that he had received many calls asking when the government would release the report and he had told them that it would be around July.

Dong Zhengwei, a lawyer based in Beijing, told the Global Times that both environmental protection law and the Constitution stipulate that residents should be able to access information that is related to their daily lives, however there are no regulations specifying conditions permitting an EIA to be made confidential.

"If the first protest on May 4 was irrationally triggered by a lack of knowledge of oil refineries and PX," Xiao said, "The second was caused more by the government's secretive attitude."

Foregone conclusion?

The project will be 30 kilometers away from residential areas and located upwind of Kunming and nearby Anning.

"As a byproduct of oil refining, PX is explosive, just like the liquefied gas some people use in kitchens and it is controllable when sealed. But if exposed to the air, it becomes volatile, and if the wind is blowing this poisonous gas is hard to control," Zhao Zhangyuan, a professor at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, told the Global Times.

"Anning is the only industrial city (close to the China-Myanmar pipeline) and has convenient access to water, electricity and other resources needed for oil refining," Gu Bochang, deputy head of the provincial publicity department, told the Global Times.

After the second protest on May 16, Kunming Mayor Li Wenrong invited 23 resident representatives and environmental authorities to attend a meeting, where he vowed that the project would not harm residents' health and the pollution would be strictly controlled with cutting-edge pollution control technology.

"I feel they just want to persuade us by giving promises," a representative from Green Kunming, a local NGO that was invited to the talk, told the Global Times, adding that the mayor failed to answer questions as to why the public had only learned of the project after all the preparations had been completed.

Initiated by the State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation around 2006, the EIA was passed in 2012, but the public was only recently notified, with rumors flying since November.

Some 19 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) has been set aside for it, Gu confirmed, adding that 3.2 billion yuan would be invested into environmental protection and water recycling.

"In a city suffering shortages of water every year, water recycling is very important. We hope residents can understand how much our preparation has gone into the project," he added.

Tears of oil

Somewhat ironically, the city is crying out for oil.

Li said that with no oil of its own, Kunming has to transport it from Xinjiang at high cost. In 2007, local media reported city-wide traffic jams caused by vehicles queuing for oil.

PX, one of the most important and widely-used industrial raw materials in China, is also in great need. China contributes around 20 percent of global PX output each year, but 40 percent of its PX materials are imported, China Central Television reported.

These points, however, have not swayed residents. A rumor of another protest has been circulating on smartphone app Weixin, despite government attempts to stifle it.

Gu admitted that the government has attempted to curtail protests.

"No gatherings or protests are allowed in a bid to maintain stability ahead of the upcoming China-South Asian Expo from June 6 to 10," he said.

However, as the Global Times has reported, many residents feel this is a convenient excuse.

"It is not that people don't understand the importance of PX. They are not satisfied with the way the government has been dealing with the problem and they want to be heard," Zhang Yiwu, a sociology professor from Peking University, told the Global Times.


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