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Chinese city halts planned chemical project after protests

Chinese authorities halted plans to produce the toxic chemical paraxylene at a China Petroleum & Chemical plant after hundreds of residents clashed with police over concerns the factory would hurt their health.

The government of the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo “firmly opposes” the project and will study it more, according to a statement posted late yesterday to the website of the government of Zhenhai district, where the plant is located. More than 1,000 residents protested against an expansion of the Sinopec plant, Phoenix Television reported.

The Ningbo protests are the latest in a series of confrontations across China pitting demonstrators against local governments over pollution concerns linked to industrial projects. Leaders in China, which begins a once-a-decade transition of power next week, face new demands from a public that’s become better informed thanks to social media and is less tolerant of projects that may pollute their cities or make them sick, according to environment researcher Ma Jun.

“The opaque old way of doing things helped ensure a huge growth rate over the last 30 years,” Ma, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in a phone interview. “You could make a big plan and drive it though without public consultation, but things have changed - - it’s a different game. I hope the new leadership can take that in a proactive way.”

Environmental concerns

The demonstrations in Ningbo started on October 24 when about 200 villagers began petitioning over environmental concerns and blocked traffic, the local government said. Paraxylene is a toxic petrochemical used in plastics, paints and cleaning solvents.

Ningbo pledged to conduct an environmental assessment of the facility. The official Xinhua News Agency cited Chen Bingrong, the city’s vice secretary general, as saying October 27 the the study would be done in a “public and transparent” way and that all details of the project would be released publicly.

While authorities have condemned the organizers of the protests, they said public sentiment would be taken into consideration before construction starts. Lv Dapeng, a Beijing- based spokesman for Sinopec and its parent China Petrochemical, didn’t answer three calls to his office line seeking comment.

Chemical factory

The protests followed a pattern that played out in the southwestern city of Shifang in July, when thousands of people protested the construction of a molybdenum copper plant. Demonstrators in Dalian, in northeast China, forced the closing of a chemical factory last year on environmental grounds, according to reports by state media.

“I see these protests as emblematic of the rise of the ‘mortgage class’ in China — urban, educated, middle class professionals who are not overly political but can and will mobilize on public health issues that affect their livelihood,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail. “The violence reflects the increasingly contentious nature of social protests in China.”

The expanded Sinopec plant is designed to produce 15 million tons of refined oil and 1.2 million tons of ethylene annually and will cost about 55.87 billion yuan ($8.9 billion), Xinhua reported yesterday.

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