Do not blame the people for demonising PX chemical products

The petrochemical industry and local officials in Kunming have accused the public of demonising PX products. Liu Jianqiang, our Beijing editor, says it is the illegal actions of these agents that are responsible for the demonisation

The Chinese chemical industry and some local government officials have complained that the public has demonised the chemical paraxylene (PX).

According to some of their statements, PX is not particularly toxic, and that compared with many other chemical industry products the dangers are minimal. They also reasoned that as it is such an important part of the chemical industry, China has no choice but to produce it. But new PX projects around China have been blocked by public opposition – first in Xiamen, then Dalian, then Ningbo, and most recently in Kunming. How tragic that such a fine chemical should be so hated!

Also read Kunming oil refinery environmental report “invalid” say NGOs

But if that is true, who is responsible for demonising PX? Was it an “uninformed” public?

Hardly. It is the local governments and the companies themselves .

A project as large as the CNPC refinery in Yunnan takes years of planning, but the locals were left in the dark. Public opposition started in May this year, but it wasn’t until two months later, with work on parts of the project already underway, that CNPC published the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. And shockingly, the report was – unlawfully – missing the section on public participation. The law had been broken even before the project began.

According to an open letter to the mayor from Wu Zongxing, a member of the city’s people’s political consultative conference, the body which compiled the report is actually a CNPC subsidiary.  How considerate of them to write a reference for their bosses!

And yet this completely illegal EIA report was not only used as the basis (or at least the excuse) for the government’s decision to go ahead – it was also approved by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

What’s puzzling is why, if this is such an utterly harmless and economically beneficial project, the local government and the company act so furtively. There are clear and open paths they could follow, yet they hide in the shadows – and we are meant to not wonder what they are doing there? Who exactly is giving PX a bad name?

And it is not just PX projects that have suffered from this lack of transparency. Operators and local governments insist that waste incinerators are harmless. The owner of one such project in Qinhuangdao included the public participation sector in the EIA report, something CNPC failed to do in Kunming. Yet many of those who had signed as “participants” were fugitive criminals, or the long deceased. Quite how the dead were brought back from the grave to support a waste incineration project remains a mystery.

What those local governments and companies need to realise is that it is not the “toxicity” of a project that arouses public doubt, fear or opposition. It is their own abnormal and “demonic” behaviour. No matter how beneficial the project is, such behaviour will result in fear and create obstacles. Only openness, transparency, compliance with the law and respect for the public will lead to issues being resolved in normal and rational ways.