The November 13 blast at a chemical plant of Jilin Petrochemical
Company under China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which sent an
80-kilometer-long slick of benzene into the Songhua River, set off
a series of water crises in downstream cities.
"Irrational industrial planning and distribution has intensified
the negative impact of the accident," Wei Lijun, deputy chief
engineer of China Academy of Safety Science and Technology (CASST), told
Guangzhou-based Nanfang Weekend in a December 8 report. "A
minor accident in a chemical plant, due to its improper location,
can easily threaten the safety of a river and downriver
Jilin Petrochemical Company, the nation's largest aniline
producer, was built close to the Songhua River. According to Zhai
Pingyang, vice president of Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of
Environmental Protection, since its establishment in the 1950s, the
company has discharged more than 150 tons of mercury into the
"We spent a decade or so trying to control the mercury deposited
in the riverbed," Zhai said. "Furthermore, a number of chemical
plants and oil refineries have been set up on both sides of the
river over the years, making water pollution even more severe."
Grave environmental accidents have also occurred in CNPC's other
ill-distributed branch companies.
A gas well burst at Chuandongbei Gas Field run by Sichuan
Petroleum Administration on December 23, 2003 in Kaixian County,
Chongqing Municipality, releasing a high concentration of natural
gas and sulfurated hydrogen. The accident claimed 243 lives and led
to the resignation of then CNPC chief Ma Fucai the following
Investigations showed that farmers lived around the well, with
the nearest no farther away than 100 meters.
In February and March 2004, the No.2 Chemical Fertilizer Plant
of Sichuan Chemical Works (Group) Ltd, located in the upper reaches
of Tuojiang River, discharged wastewater with high concentrations
of ammonia and nitrogen into the river's tributary, the Pihe River,
affecting nearly 1 million residents in Jianyang and Zizhong
CNPC is not the only chemical industry player guilty of
In Chongqing, for example, Changling Chemical Works Ltd was
initially built in the suburbs in the 1950s and 60s. With
Chongqing's expansion, it edged its way into the city area. In
1998, it narrowly avoided a leakage of deadly poisonous barium
chloride into the Yangtze River. But in April 2004, a blast at the
company's Tianyuan Chemical Plant caused toxic chlorine to seep
into some districts of the city. The accident forced 150,000
citizens to evacuate and led to the eventual relocation of the
In addition, Nongfeng Chemical Plant situated on the upper
reaches of Jialing River has for years made it risky for
Chongqing's waterworks to take water from the river.
An industrial insider told Nanfang Weekend that currently
at least 2,000 chemical plants across the country are located in
water-source areas or densely populated regions, such as CNPC's
Lanzhou Petrochemical Company upstream of the Yellow River. In this
case, a "conventional" accident like an oil spill, if not handled
properly, could pose a serious potential threat to the security of
This situation has caught the attention of the State
Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). On December 1,
its deputy chief Wang Yuqing warned that China is reporting a high
incidence of environmental accidents, due to the reckless pursuit
of fast economic growth without appropriate emergency reaction
On December 8, SEPA issued an emergency notice asking for checks
to be conducted on chemical plants and other potential sources of
pollution along major rivers and their tributaries.
According to Dr. Zhou Guomei of SEPA's Policy Research Center,
China's industrialization has entered a stage characterized by a
remarkable development of heavy industry. In 2004, the
petrochemical industry saw a year-on-year rise of 32.3 percent in
total output value, and its contribution share to gross domestic
product reached 18 percent.
Driven by huge market demand, many chemical plants have
overloaded production capacities, which significantly increases the
probability of workplace accidents, Zhou said.
Considering an area's environmental loading capacity, the high
concentration of chemical plants around water sources is likely to
cause repeated pollution, sparking even more severe ecological
The tributaries of the Hanjiang River are overcrowded with
chemical plants so much so that its waters upstream are extremely
polluted. In addition, the country has spent tens of billions of
yuan over the last decade treating the polluted Huaihe River, which
is home to numerous chemical plants, but with little progress to
show for it.
The 2004 Bulletin of Maritime Environmental Quality released by
the State Oceanic Administration indicates that grave pollution
exists in the Bohai Sea Gulf, Hangzhou Bay, estuaries of the
Yangtze and Pearl rivers, and coastal waters of Jiangsu Province,
where newly built chemical plants are clustered.
The following statistical figures were also published in the
Nanfang Weekend report: Nearly one-third of the nation's
land has been polluted by acid rain; more than 300 million rural
residents have no access to safe drinking water; over 400 million
city-dwellers breathe in seriously polluted air, and some 15
million people suffer from bronchitis and respiratory tract
Speaking on the Songhua River pollution, Zhai Pingyang insisted
that sewage outlets in the upper reaches must be closed, and
chemical plants along the river be moved away. However, a huge
amount of money will be needed to relocate the colossal Jilin
The desire to hold on to business investments is one of the
reasons why the Chongqing municipal government has been dragging
its feet on moving major polluters out of the city. For example, 19
official orders and instructions in 2001 weren't enough to effect
the relocation of the Jialing Chemical Plant.
The plant was sandwiched between a campus of the Chongqing
Industrial and Commercial University and several residential areas,
and the nearest Dongjiagou Residential District was just some 100
Only after the explosion at the Tianyuan Chemical Plant in 2004
was Jialing finally removed.
Some environmental protection experts pointed out that
industrial planning and distribution should be mapped out in line
with the country's environmental capacity. This view was echoed by
Zhu Tiankai, director of Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Environmental
Protection, who said that policy-makers must give priority to
environmental capacity, resource consumption and ecological impact
before deciding to start a project.
Days before his resignation over the Songhua River pollution
incident, former SEPA chief Xie Zhenhua submitted a draft speech to
a forum on environmental protection. In the draft, titled Actively
Building An Environment-friendly Society, he said that
environmental problems arising from the West's century-long course
of industrialization "bombarded" China in the last 20 years or so,
bringing about enormous economic losses to the country because it
was unprepared to deal with the situation.
An economic growth model of high consumption, high pollution and
low efficiency must be changed to build an environment-friendly
society, Xie's draft speech added.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, December 14, 2005)