Factory explosion may stoke concern

Updated: 2013-07-31 01:26

By Sun Li and Wu Wencong (China Daily)

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Blaze could shake public trust in chemical projects, experts say

An explosion at a chemical factory in Fujian province on Tuesday will renew public fear of chemical projects, experts said.

A cracked hydrogen pipeline caused a fire during a pressure test at the paraxylene factory in Zhangzhou at 4:35 am, destroying pipelines and shattering windows in some houses in nearby villages, according to the city government.

Several injuries from falling objects were reported in nearby villages, but no fatalities or pollution has been detected.

The cause of the accident is still being investigated, said Zeng Pingxi, a government official in Zhangzhou.

Paraxylene, or PX, is mainly used to manufacture polyester and poses a health risk to humans because of its flammability and toxicity.

The risk it bears is lower than natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas, however, and there is no scientific proof PX can lead to cancer or deformities.

Public concern over PX safety has been mounting recently, with residents in several cities taking to the streets to protest plans to build PX factories in their neighborhoods.

In May, protests erupted over plans for a PX plant in Kunming, Yunnan province, where residents said they feared authorities had failed to adequately assess the risks.

Worries are expected to grow following the Zhangzhou blast and further weaken the public's trust in the safety of PX.

Deng Yanhua, an associate professor at the Public Administration School at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, said such incidents may jeopardize local governments' credibility when they promise chemical projects will not pose much threat to the public.

Deng, who researches environmental issues, said the explosion may reduce public tolerance of new PX projects and those already under construction.

"Residents will cite the Zhangzhou blast to block new projects," she said.

The Zhangzhou plant attracted protests even before it was built.

The project, designed to produce 800,000 metric tons of PX a year with a total investment of almost 14 billion yuan ($2.28 billion), was slated for the densely populated tourist city of Xiamen in Fujian, but protests in 2007 by residents over potential health hazards succeeded in getting it moved to a less populated area in Zhangzhou.

A trial run of the plant started in June, and operation was to start officially later this year, according to media reports.

Worries grew among Zhangzhou residents after the blast.

"I have never given any thought to the possible pollution PX may cause until now," said Hu Wen, who does wastewater treatment at the Zhangzhou plant. "I'm quitting this job soon."

Jolted awake by the loud hiss coming from the cracked pipeline, Hu saw from his dorm near the explosion site that the flames rose more than 50 meters in the air.

"It's lucky it happened early in the morning. The casualties would be severe if it happened during working hours, with more than 100 people working nearby," said the 26-year-old from Jiangxi province.

Hong Shanqing, who runs a convenience store in Xingzai village, some 400 meters from the plant, thought the blast was an earthquake at first.

"I'm more afraid of the possible pollution the explosion might cause, and what if similar incidents happen again?" said Hong, whose store door was broken by the explosion's shockwave.

It is not the first PX accident in recent years.

On Aug 8, 2011, the breakwater of a PX project in Dalian, Liaoning province, was destroyed by a tropical storm, triggering protests, although no chemical leaks were caused.