October 13, 2008 / 6:52 AM / 9 years ago

China residents mobilize against chemical project

<p>A woman rides a scooter down an alley in Taizhou, China, August 20, 2007.Ben Blanchard</p>

BEIJING (Reuters) - Residents of a pollution-plagued Chinese city are mobilizing against a proposed chemical plant they fear will menace their health, with some urging marches against the scheme they say puts growth before the environment.

The plant proposed for Taizhou on the coast of east China's Zhejiang province would make paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical used in polyester. Last year, protests against a PX plant planned for another coastal city, Xiamen, led to officials shelving it.

Now Taizhou residents, dismayed at the prospect of another chemical plant in an area already crowded with them, are threatening to re-enact those protests -- and again bring into focus China's struggle to balance growth with growing public anger over pollution and environmental threats.

"Resolutely oppose the PX project. As Taizhou residents, everyone must take some action," said one message on a local website (bbs.taizhou.com) that has served as a platform for the opposition. "We want clear water and green hills, not toxic cash."

China's leaders have vowed to create a more "harmonious society" with cleaner air and water, even at the cost of slower economic growth. But this dispute threatens to become another battle pitting citizens against local officials whose priority often remains attracting fresh investment and revenue.

A website devoted to opposing the project (blog.sina.com.cn/baoweitaizhou) urges residents to "surround Taizhou."

"Let the people speak out. Give them full rights to know and express themselves," said the latest posting, dated Sunday. "Environmental problems are the world's problems, and every individual's."

Internet messages also urge residents to send around text messages organizing mass "strolls" against the project.

EAGER OFFICIALS

Coastal Taizhou is a hub of chemical production and the big plant would be a feather in the cap for local officials.

"This is a rare historic opportunity, and a big project to enrich the people of Taizhou," stated an official news report in April (tz.zj.gov.cn) that announced the plan.

"We must seize the initiative and go all out to win it."

But residents and workers in Taizhou have long complained about water, air and fields putrid with pollution.

The proposed chemical production plant would make ethylene and paraxylene as part of a larger petroleum processing complex costing 60 billion yuan ($8.8 billion), according to reports in the official Taizhou Daily.

A Taizhou city environmental official told Reuters the project, led by China's top oil and gas firm CNPC, was still in planning stages and had not been approved. He declined to answer more questions and gave only his surname, Wang.

China National Petroleum Corp and its listed PetroChina unit both declined to say which was managing the project and had no immediate comment on the growing opposition.

Residents opposing the plant have said it was about three times the size of the one proposed for Xiamen.

But that project in neighboring Fujian province petered out last year after a wave of mass "strolls" by residents, challenging the ruling Communist Party's ban on public protest.

In May this year, about 200 people staged a rare protest in a southwest China against a big petrochemical complex, saying it would cause air and water pollution.

In these protests, environmental worries have stoked calls for expanded rights for citizens in the one-Party state. Taizhou appears to continue that trend.

"In a democratic society, the government's decisions must represent public opinion," said one internet essay questioning the project.

Additional by Emma Graham-Harrison and Yu Le; Editing by Nick Macfie

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