2007: The article that startled China’s environmental consciousness

In November 2006, the local government announced it would build a new chemical plant producing toxic compounds just 7 km away from Xiamen City, with a population of over 2.2 million. This story, published in Hong Kong’s Phoenix Weekly in May 2007, is the first news article about the issue and uses public records as well as interviews to show how authorities approved the project despite known health and environmental risks. 

After the story was published, authorities quickly removed the edition of Phoenix Weekly from shelves in Xiamen, though the article continued to circulate online. Xiamen residents staged a protest, forcing the local government to move the plant inland to another less populated part of Fujian province. The Xiamen case was the first in a series of large-scale movements against chemical plants across China.

About Phoenix Weekly

Phoenix Weekly is a news magazine launched in 1996 under Phoenix Satellite TV Co., a Hong Kong media group with several offices in China. It focused on covering regional and global issues impacting Chinese people.

Xiamen: An Island City in the Shadow of Chemical Industry

After his ship left the Heping Pier, Wu Weizhong continued to squat on the ship’s dock while staring at the ocean surface where sky meets the water. Amid the misty ambience, only around 7 kilometers away from the pier, there is a long and narrow piece of land where the government has decided to build a heavy chemical industries plant.

Among them the PX project has driven residents in the area to panic.  

The so-called PX Wu talked about is formally known as paraxylene, which is a highly hazardous carcinogenic potential chemical. The PX project is invested by Dragon Aromatics (Xiamen) Co., Ltd. The new project is expected to start up by the end of 2008, and is scheduled to make the company the largest PX producer in Mainland China. It will be part of the other chemical industry plants at Xiamen City’s Haicang District, creating a huge petrochemical Industry park in the region.

Haicang District is currently China’s biggest Taiwanese Investment Zone and an important petrochemical industrial production base in the west coast of the Taiwan Strait. 

Local government officials praised the ongoing establishment of chemical plants in the area of playing an important role in the vertical integration of polyester fiber, PX, PTA chemical industry.

“It will significantly boost the production values of industries in Haicang, to the formation of a heavy industrial city, as well as to the production values of Xiamen City and the Fujian Province as a whole.” 

However, to local residents, the industrial chain with PX as its core has become an endless nightmare. Opposition to the project has been non-stop for a while but to little response from the authorities.

In 2007, a motioned raised by Zhao Yufen – member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), academician at the Chinese Academy of Science, and a professor at Xiamen University – signed by 105 CPPCC members, argued that the PX plant is too close to residential areas. Any leak or explosion would put over a million people in danger. 

The motion means that the protest that originally from the Internet has spread to the street. 

Xiamen residents’ fear and anxiety over the chemical project has since raised widespread concern.

Loopholes for Polluters

Wu Weizhong turned around in his bed before burying his head under blankets.

It is now around midnight of April 25 yet he still could not fall asleep. Several hours ago, heavy rain just stopped and the stinky chemical smell in the air has since become so strong and even his blankets cannot stop it from entering his nostrils.

He is facing a nervous breakdown. 

Wu ultimately left his bed. “Since it is so smelly that I can’t even sleep, I might as well left the house to walk around outside.” He walked toward a nearby city green belt. He thought that the flowers and grasses there might make the smell better.

On his way, he met three of his neighbors, including Xiao Zhou and Xiao Huang. 

Before Wu spoke, Zhou said “you wanted to enjoy some fresh at the green belt right? Don’t bother, the smell is the same there.”

After this, Wu felt even more depressed. “How can we continue to live like this.” 

He continued to wander aimlessly and occasionally exchanged a wry smile with oncoming neighbors without speaking a word.

For the past one plus years, Haicang District residents like Wu seemed to turn into night owls that spent their night time walking around.

Wu said “it is extremely painful, I could not sleep at night due to the bad smell, I am always tired in the morning and could not work.”

About a year ago, Wu bought an apartment at the southeastern side of the Haicang District. The day he moved into the new apartment, he asked a group of close friends to celebrate moving in. Electric firecrackers were lit. He said he has saved money for so many years and was finally able to buy his own house, starting a stable life. He was so happy and wanted to celebrate.   

Not long after moving in, however, the PX plant and other chemical engineering projects started to be built nearby at the end of 2006. All the excitement and joy were gone and buried under the strong odor of soreness and smelly chemicals.

Wu said many residents near the chemical engineering projects in Haicang would rather move to other districts to live in rented apartments, in particular pregnant women. 

Some residents have questioned the absence of air quality monitoring stations in Haicang District despite the fact that there are so many chemical engineering plants.

There are daily air quality reports in other parts of Xiamen City but the only district without that kind of service is Haicang. “Haicang is like a child that no one cares about, and has become a loophole in the city’s environmental protection efforts.”

Due to the strong demand made by locals, Fujian Provincial Environmental Protection Office and Xiamen Environmental Protection Bureau jointly conducted a three-day air quality monitoring last July. The result was a shocking discovery: the hydrogen sulfide, ozone and other indicators have all exceeded national standards.

Only several years ago when there was not a single chemical engineering plant in Haicang, people in Xiamen often called the district an “Oxygen bar” of the city.

Ma Yicheng who lives around the Haicang Farm said his neighborhood was covered in lush green vegetation and situated close to the seashore, therefore the air there was especially clean.

“In particular when you climbed up the 380 meters Caijianwei Mountain, the water, earth and air there were extremely refreshing.”

“We used to live a healthy life, whereas now we are more dead than alive.”

What is even more threatening is the potential hazard if there are leaks or explosion accidents from these chemical plants, Ma said.

PX Project in Petrochemical Industrial Chain 

“Our nightmare is on the other side,” one resident of Gulangyu said.

Situated just 7 kilometers away from Gulangyu, Dragon Aromatics PX Plant covers 114.7 hectares of land and is right next to another major chemical engineering company, Xianglu Petrochemicals and Dragon Special Resin’s plants.

Thick smoke coming out of dozens of meters high chimneys of these plants, spreading pungent odors around the area.

Walking into the PX plant, the first thing one saw is a massive and seemingly never ending yellow ground. At one corner of the piece of mud land, there are several assembled mobile houses with reinforcing steels, tooling scattered around.

Zhejiang-based East Construction Group Co. is one of the contractors responsible for building the plant with more than one hundred workers standing by at rented apartments near the Wencuo Village.

The pieces of land that have been included in the PX plant cover Wencuo and Jienmei villages. To facilitate the plant construction, villagers have been asked to move away from these villages. According to Dragon Aromatics’ original plan, all the related equipment and materials for the plant’s construction will arrive in Haicang in batches before 2008. The plant that will be able to produce 800,000 tons of PX every year is expected to complete construction by the end of 2008. 

The progress for Dragon Aromatics’ PX plant proposal has been fast-tracked by the Chinese government. Public information shows that it was first approved by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in July, 2005. It later cleared the National Development and Reform Commission in July 2006. A month later, Xiamen Haicang Land Development Co. immediately began the land acquisition process before handing over 1,920 mus of land in a little more than 40 days on Oct. 15, 2006 to the constructor.  

According to the Xiamen Daily, on Nov. 17, 2006, Zheng Lizhong, deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council; He Lifeng, Party secretary of Fuzhou, party secretary of Xiamen, Robert Huang, chair of Dragon Aromatics and  Phillip Yu, chair of Xianglu Petrochemical, jointly kicked off the aromatics and PTA project construction respectively at the same time at Haicang Chemical Industry Park, Xiamen, Fujian Province.

For Dragon Aromatics, this means the beginning of the construction of the PX plant that will be able to produce 800,000 tons of PX every year, and the second phase of its PTA project that will produce 1.5 million tons of PTA per year 

“There is something unusual about the PX project,” Wu Weizhong said. He read from the newspaper that aside from the participation of major political leaders in Fujian Province and Xiamen City in the plant’s construction kick-off ceremony, former Vice Minister of Commerce and Vice President of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, An Min, Association of Economy and Trade Across Taiwan Straits Li Shueilin and Zou Erjun, the provincial government’s deputy director general for economic and trade promotion association with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, also attended the event.   

During the same event, Deputy Xiamen Mayor Ding Guoyan lauded the PX program as “the biggest industrial investment in the city’s history, which will significantly boost the global competitiveness of the petrochemicals industry in the west side of the Taiwan Strait and the growth of the local economy.”

“The beginning of construction of the PX program has been highly supported by Taiwan Affairs Office, Ministry of Commerce, the National Development and Reform Commission and other related government units, exemplifying the nation’s full support to the construction of the west side of the Taiwan Strait.”

According to the introduction, Dragon Aromatics (Xiamen) Co., Ltd. is the first foreign-invested petrochemical company that produces PX in Mainland China. The company has a size of 114.7 hectares. As a key national construction project and an important base for the petrochemical industry in the west coast of the Strait, the company has invested a total of 10.8 billion renminbi to complete the PX plant before the end of 2008.

Once completed, the total industrial production value of Dragon Aromatics will reach more than 40 billion renminbi.

As a downstream project of the PX plant, Xianglu Petrochemicals’ second phase PTA plan, meanwhile, is also a key project in Xiamen City.

After the start-up before the end of 2008, Xianglu will have a total capacity of 3 million in Xiamen.

The future of Xiamen Haicang Investment Zone will become a world level aromatic hydrocarbon products center, Robert Huang said. 

The first phase of its PTA project began operations in October 2002. With a total investment of over 5 billion renminbi, the first phase PTA plant produces 1.5 million tons of PTA per year, making it the single PTA production line that has the largest production capability in the world. 

To local officials, that project is a huge success.

But to ordinary people like Wu Weizhong, the first phase PTA project was a disaster and a source of depression.

“It has been a main source of pollution with a smelly odor. It foreshadows how huge a negative impact its follow-up plant could have on the local environment.”

To the government officials, however, the so-called nightmare on the other side has never been mentioned. On Jan. 14, 2007, in an article title “Report to the General Secretary” posted on its official website, Xiamen City government said the biggest industrial investment project in Xiamen history; Dragon Aromatics’ PX plant with 800,000 tons annual production and Xianglu Petrochemical second phase PTA plant with 1.5 million tons annual production; have begun constructions. 

This means a “world-class petrochemical giant” is on the rise in the west coast of the Taiwan Strait and will perfectly integrate all the mid to downstream companies in Fujian’s petrochemical industry.

The goal for Phillip Yu, chair of Xianglu Petrochemical, is that once the two projects officially begin production, Dragon Aromatics Xianglu Petrochemical will be able to integrate all of its petrochemical industrial chain to become fully self-sufficient in terms of raw materials production and energy saving.

By 2008, Xianglu Group will become one of the four petrochemical giants in China, together with China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, China National Petroleum Corporation, and the China Gas Group.  

Online public opinion no match to GDP growth 

As the PX plant continues to make progress, a wave of protest has been spreading across the internet to protect the island city from petrochemical pollution.

“A low-level and deadly mistake is happening with no one to stop it. The city that used to be livable and welcoming now only exists in our memory and dream,” a Xiamen citizen said in his/her blog. 

“The November 2005 Jilin chemical plant explosions and the subsequent Songhua River pollutions have struck terror to the nearby Russian people. The deadly accident was caused by the PX plant explosions. The world class hazardous and dangerous plant that people around the world are avoiding has now become a world class treasure here and has to be stuck into the heart of the city for some reasons. Who kneeled down to capitalism while disregarding freedom, dignity, health and security of the people?” said in the blog.    

Famous columnist Lian Yue, himself a Xiamen resident, also noted in his blog that once the PX plant begins operations, “it will put the Xiamen Island and the whole Hokkien Golden Triangle under the deadly shadow of petrochemical threat.”

“In the worst case scenario, such as war or terrorist attack, the plant will become a gift to terrorists. Should anything wrong happen with the plant, (not including human lives because they are worthless), it would mean a deadly blow to the economy of the southern Fujian Province and astronomical loss to GDP growth,” he warned. 

In recent years, the air quality of Xiamen that used to be on the top 10 list around the country has since dropped to No. 7 among the total 9 prefectures of Fujian Province.

The authorities attributed the significant drop to vehicle exhaust gasses. However, most citizens believed heavy chemical industry such as the PX plant is to be blamed.

A netizen identified as “Look at Haicang, my hometown,” said in his/her blog that according to Wu Fan, director of National Center for Non-Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, China CDC; it is definitely not normal whenever a high number of cancer patients are reported. 

If one place has an out of ordinary high cancer incidence rate, there can only be two reasons, one is family history, another is their living environment, according to Wu.

According to a Strait Herald article dated in April. 7, 2007, the leading cause of death for Xiamen residents is lung cancer. Of all Xiamen districts, mortality rates from malignant neoplasms among Haicang and Jimei district residents stand around 114.00/100,000; that of Siming, Huli districts are around 125.81/100,000, while the mortality rates from malignant neoplasms among Tongan and Xiangan districts are 141.67/100,000. The overall incidence rates for all cancers in China stand around 70/100,000.

So what gives Xiamen residents a higher mortality rate from malignant neoplasms? The blogger alleged that the sky above the beautiful island city is surrounded by highly dangerous…” 

Facing rising questions and doubts, Xiamen government authorities do not shy away from reporters. On Dec. 13, 2006, deputy director of Haicang Investment District Committee, Hu Zuxiang, a professor level senior engineer, told the Strait Herald that the more advanced factory production technology, featuring high quality, fully automatic, closed system, and a rigid scientific management, have already made the modern day petrochemical industry much safer and environmental friendly, comparing with traditional, old ones.

A manager in Haicang’ environmental protection branch bureau also told the newspaper that the PX plant is installed with an automatic fire alarm system; such as combustible gas sensors, low-liquid alarm, and fire alarm. Explosive atmosphere zone also has explosion proof facilities in place, including explosion proof lamps, explosion proof dashboards, and explosion proof communication devices. In case of an environmental emergency, an evacuation plan and contingencies have been prepared by the Haicang District authorities that are expected to effectively protect the safety and wellbeing of its people.

David Lin, general manager of Dragon Aromatics, also publicly stated that the plant has invested 470 million renminbi on environmental protection, which stands around 5 to 7.5 percent of its total investment.

However, other articles have pointed out that the PVC factory in Ningbo has spent around 20 percent of its total investment on environmental protection.

On Jan. 30, 2007, the Xiamen City Industry, Economy, and Branding Meeting predicted that the city’s annual total industrial output value is expected to reach 280 to 300 billion renminbi, following the completion of major projects such as PX, PTA plants.

The two major projects (PX, PTA) are expected to have a combined production output of more than 80 billion renminbi once beginning productions, according to a speech on promoting joint development made by Zhong Xingguo, member of Xiamen Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China and secretary of the CPC Executive Committee of Haicang Investment Zone of Xiamen City.

Zhong also previously disclosed that Haicang’s annual total industrial output value has reached 46.41 billion renminbi in 2005, the highest number among all districts of Xiamen. Petrochemical industry sector has contributed more than half of the output value. 

On Feb. 8, Xiamen Municipal Committee of the CPC members stressed that it is important to keep the momentum going to make sure the PX and the second phase PTA projects would complete successfully.

Academicians raised motion

On Spring 2007, during the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a total of 105 members of the CPPCC, including academicians at the Chinese Academy of Science Zhao Yufen, Shen Shituan, ex-president of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Tian Zhongqun, have jointly signed a motion to call on government to halt the Xiamen PX plant construction for safety reasons.

The motion means that the protest originated from the internet is now gaining more visibility among higher ranking Chinese officials and thus drawing more widespread concerns and discussions. 

According to a schematic diagram provided by Zhao and other renowned chemists, the PX plant in Haicang is located only 7 kilometers away from Gulangyu Island, a national-level tourism scenic spot. Its location is just four 4 kilometers away from Xiamen Foreign Language School and Xiamen Haicang Affiliated School of Beijing Normal University, where the two schools have a combined of 5,000 students, most of them borders. 

Also, Haichang District, with a population of 100,000, situated within a five-kilometer radius of the PX project. The plant is also only 1.5 km from the nearest residential area.

In accordance to Mainland’s “Health protection zone standard for petrochemical industry,” a petrochemical plant with an annual production output of 200,000 to 600,000 tons of polyesters has to be located at least 900 meters away from the nearest residential area when local speed of wind is between 2 to 4 meters/second.

According to Yuan Dongxing, a chemistry professor in the Xiamen University that conducted the survey together with Zhao, the PX and PTA projects in Haicang should follow the exact rule as stipulated in the above mentioned standards.

However, Haicang Xinggang Garden Residential Area is located only less than 500 meters from the PTA project, according to Yuan.

Within a 10-kilometer radius of the PX project covers a majority of the mouth of Jiulong River, comprising one-fifth of the area covering sea off west of Xiamen and the Xiamen Island.

And a wharf built exclusively for the PX plant project is situated right within the Xiamen National Rare Marine Species Nature Reserve, home to endangered species such as Chinese white dolphins, little egrets and the European lancelets.

“PX is a kind of highly dangerous chemical and is likely to be carcinogenic and lead to birth defects,” Zhao Yufen told Chinese news media. “Even the best environmental protection measures could go wrong. We cannot make the decision based on the possibility of an explosion or leak. The results could be catastrophic once an emergency occurs,” Zhao said.  

Xiamen’s main city center is located on an island, commonly known as Xiamen main Island. There are two administrative districts in the main island, namely Huli and Siming. Only two bridges connect the island with the outside world; one is Xiamen Bridge that connects the main island’s northwestern area to Jimei District, another is  Haicang Bridge that links the island’s southwestern area to Haicang District.  

Zhao suspected that “once an emergency occurs in the Haicang PX plant or other natural disasters, such as typhoon, earthquake, tsunami, or even terrorist attack, occur that jeopardize the security of the plant, how long would it take for over one million residents in Xiamen main island to evacuate from the four-lane Xiamen Bridge?” 

Public information shows that most of the PX plants around the globe are in Asia, most of them in China and South Korea.

The PX projects in Taiwan and Korea are normally located at least 70 kilometers away from nearest major cities, while those in Mainland China located just 20 kms away from major cities.

For instance, Korea LGCaltex’s 400,000 tons annual output PX plant is about 87 kms away from Gwangju. Malaysia-based AMSB’s PX plant, with an annual 450,000 tons output, located some 238 kms away from Kuala Lumpur. The PX plant of the Thailand-based ATC company with 110,000 tons output, meanwhile, is situated some 52 kms away from Chonburi province.

In China, Sinopec’s 800,000 tons annual production PX plant is located 25 kms away from Nanjing City. The proposed PX plant with a 600,000 tons output at Yangpu Economic Development Zone is about 128 kms away from Haikou City.

With an expected production of 450,000 tons a year, Dalian Fujia Dahua’s proposed PX project is about 17 kms away from Dalian, while Ningbo Zhongjin Petrochemical Co., Ltd.-proposed PX project with an future annual production of 700,000 tons is about 18 kms away from Ningbo.

The PX plant in Xiamen is currently the one closest to the nearest residential area in the country.

Pau Yue, deputy secretary of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, has said before that the fundamental problem for China’s petrochemical businesses that has been causing a surge of pollution in recent years is their inability to conduct environmental assessment.

Many of these projects have met required environmental protection standards, with some even meeting highest level standards.

However, some other projects have failed to take environmental capacity or regional planning into consideration. Some projects are becoming even more unreasonable when they are built close to each other.

In the morning of March 14, 2007, after being given permission from Pan Yue, Zhu Xingxiang, head of the Department of Environmental Impact Assessment and Emission Management, has hold a round of talks with CPPCC members Shen Shituan and Tian Zhongqun who made the petition.

Chinese media disclosed that there is little Zhu can do regarding their petition, following the meeting. 

“The main problem is that the investment project was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has no authority to relocate it. Also, the PX project has already cleared required environmental evaluation. The only thing the Ministry of Environmental Protection can do now is to not approve any new petrochemical project in Xiamen.”

Behind the Shadow 

Some observers said in the case of the Dragon Aromatics, the lack of a comprehensive and effective disclosure of environmental issue and public participation are to be blamed for putting people’s safety in danger.

They believe that potential petrochemical pollution the city of Xiamen is facing has revealed the ugly truth of the lack of public participation into the environmental evaluation of major projects in terms of urban planning in Chinese cities. 

In Feb. 22, 2006, the Ministry of Environmental Protection made public a Provisional Measures on Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessments.

In it, the ministry has pointed out that public participation is crucial in solving China’s environmental problems and public disclosure of environmental related information is a precondition for public participation.

“Decision of the State Council on Materializing Scientific Viewpoint of Development and Strengthening Environmental Protection” released by the State Council also pointed out that it is important for all provinces and city governments to regularly release air quality, city noise assessment, drinking water quality, river water quality, water quality in coastal area, and other ecosystem status evaluation statistics, and to make public information concerning to environmental emergencies after they occur, to build momentum for public participation.

Wu Weizhong questioned, however, there is no solution to the problem even after widespread public concerns and experts’ participation. 

It is April 28, another weekend, Wu chose not to stay at home. He and several of his neighbors decided to take a boat out heading to the open seas instead of staying at their stinky houses. 

“It is like killing yourself slowly.”