Protesters who got authorities in Dalian to promise to relocate the Fujia chemical plant may have been pushing at an open door. Officials had already been discussing the closure of the plant, whose protective seawall was breached by Typhoon Muifa earlier this month. Beyond the typhoon damage, which threatened a spill of the toxic chemicals used in the plant’s production of paraxylene, an ingredient of polyester film and fabrics, there have been questions of whether the plant was operating before it had received the necessary safety approvals, whether local officials had turned a blind eye to the illegal production, and whether all was as it should be with the granting of the final approval. The plant is a joint venture between the Dalian Chemical Co. and Fujia, a large and well-connected local real-estate developer.
At the same time, the protests against the plant’s siting, in the Dagushan industrial zone in the city’s suburbs no more than 20 kilometers from the city center, are another example of the popular questioning of the dash for economic growth regardless of the environmental and social costs. The plant is part of a drive to create a vertically integrated petrochemicals industry in the city to replace old rustbelt industries, and only one of some three dozen chemical plants in the Dagushan industrial zone.
Typhoon Muifa is only the latest intervention by nature to highlight the environmental dangers of such industrial concentration. Last year an oil pipeline exploded causing serious pollution to local waters and beaches. Nor is the plant the first paraxylene production facility to be relocated away from residential areas. One in Xiamen was moved after local protests there in 2007.
While neither place nor time has been given for moving Dalian’s–it is China’s largest such plant, so it can’t just be picked up and put down somewhere else overnight–it might well also not be the last to come under the scrutiny of a public decreasingly trustful of large-scale industrial development projects. China has 14 paraxylene plants, half a dozen of which, like Dalian’s, have been built in the past five years.