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Songhua Pollution Sparks Rethink of Industrial Distribution

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 cities."


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 river.


"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 year.


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 counties downriver.


CNPC is not the only chemical industry player guilty of irrational distribution.


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 company.


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 riverside cities.


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 mechanisms.


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 disasters.


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 cancer.


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 Petrochemical Company.


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 meters away.


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)

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