Communication essential for Yunnan chemical project

Updated: 2013-05-18 02:01

By Hu Yongqi in Beijing and Guo Anfei in Kunming (China Daily)

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At 9 am on Friday, Kunming's Mayor Li Wenrong opened his new micro blog to solicit suggestions on the latest developments in Yunnan's provincial capital.

The blog is being seen as a major a step forward in strengthening his communication with local communities, especially in light of recent events surrounding controversial plans for a chemical plant in one of the best-known tourism destinations in Southwest China.

The planned China National Petroleum Corp refinery, in the city of Anning, will refine 10 million metric tons of oil a year, and has sparked a local controversy due to its potentially harmful environmental impact.

On Thursday, around 1,000 Kunming residents took to the streets to show their opposition to the refinery, and a paraxylene, or PX, project nearby.

Li rushed to the scene of the protest, and promised to register a micro blog by midday on Friday to listen to grassroots comments and thoughts.

Li kept his word, and registered the micro blog three hours earlier than the deadline, becoming the first mayor of a provincial capital city in the country to have one.

Nearly 46,000 followers had registered by the time China Daily went to press.

Li also apologized to the public for the Kunming government not being efficient in releasing timely information about the projects, adding he will meet with resident representatives over their fears.

The moves have been seen as a major step toward easing local concern at ineffectual government communications up until then.

Experts have said the chemical projects are likely to raise fears and antagonism among residents living in the vicinity and that the government must adopt a more active role in releasing well-timed information, and that the plants' owner should also share information on their plans.

The project's saga began in March, when Kunming residents first found out approval had been given to build the refinery in Anning, a county-level city.

Hundreds of people took to the streets on May 4 in the hope of blocking the project.

Qin Guangrong, the Party chief of Yunnan province, issued a news release on May 9 insisting the government could not ignore the public concern, but neither could it sacrifice environment for economic development.

From May 10 to 14, officials from the Yunnan energy bureau and the environmental protection bureau held a news conference to explain the refinery, and the integrated supporting PX project.

CNPC officials also attended the conference to explain what measures would be taken to ensure safety and keep discharges and emissions under control.

Resident representatives, taxi drivers and environmental protection experts were also invited to talk to the media.

On May 15 and 16, the Kunming city government arranged for 14 people - including two popular netizens, two environmental enthusiasts and some journalists - to visit a refinery in Qinzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, which processes 10 million tons of oil annually, according to Kunming Daily.

However, residents still refused to accept the PX project and the refinery.

Experts insist the refinery will do little harm to the local environment, but agree that the public needs to be given more information.

Jin Yong, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said chemical companies must respect the public's right to know the facts, and that information must be released on expected discharge levels at the plants.

Major PX producing countries such as Singapore and South Korea enjoy the advantage of being rich in water resources and strong air movements, which help clean discharges.

However, Kunming residents say the plateau province has suffered droughts for five consecutive years and that the refinery will use up its vital, but limited, water supplies.

Wu Kai, a senior CNPC engineer, said the refinery will not use water from the Songhuaba Reservoir, a major water source for Kunming.

Jin said that on Jurong Island - a 32 sq km offshore hub in Singapore - there are 96 global petroleum, petrochemical and specialty chemical companies, and 10 parks have been built nearby to counter any side effects of the island's industrial activities.

Jurong contributes a third of Singapore's manufacturing industry but still has blue skies and clean air, Jin added.

But quality systems and machinery are used to discharge less wastewater and emit less exhaust gas, he said.

This is the fifth case in China where local communities have cast doubt on a PX and refinery project, following ones in Xiamen in Fujian province and Dalian in Liaoning province.

Paraxylene is a substance used primarily as a feedstock for the manufacture of purified terephthalic acid, which is an important chemical in the production of fiber and plastic bottles.

"People fear seeing chemical plants being built near their homes, partly because they don't actually know the details," said Gu Zongqin, vice-president of the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation, speaking at a forum in Beijing on Thursday, entitled Greener Chemical Industry.

"One of the misconceptions of paraxylene is the fear it causes cancer, but actually it won't. But many people would feel better if they knew the facts about its environmental issues," said Gu, adding that it is natural the project is being opposed by local residents, and so the government needs to involve others in assessing it.

Gu said he was impressed with the way refining and chemical plants in Europe and the United States interact with their local communities.

"For example, one chemical company I know invites people living in the neighboring areas to visit their factories to see the production and discharges every three months.

"Only in this way, do people believe the project will not cause them any harm," he said.

Steve Kromer, senior vice-president of US-based Invista, a leading global chemicals producer, said governments must be transparent and adopt high standards in the recycling of wastewater and emissions.

Environmental review is also crucial for chemical projects, he told the forum.

He Yanling, a professor at the School of Government at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, said the government and chemical companies must cultivate a strong communication channel with the public.

"The public should have the judgment and sense to take an active and constructive role in environmental issues, rather than being seen as ignorant of the potential harm," she said, adding that in the case of Kunming, ongoing communication is essential to tackle its current challenges.

Li Yingqing in Kunming contributed to this story.