August 1, 2013
Translated by Luo Shuqi
An explosion ripped through a paraxylene (PX) plant in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province at around 5am on July 30.
According to local authorities, no casualties or chemical leaks have been reported and the plant did not suffer heavy damage. An initial investigation indicates that the fire was triggered by a crack that appeared in a hydrogen pipeline during a pressure test.
News of the explosion broke when a Sina Weibo user posted images of the fire at the plant to their account at 4:57am.
Construction of Plant Halted by Environment Department in January
In January 2013, construction at the Zhangzhou plant was halted and Xianglu Tenglong Group (翔鹭腾龙集团), the company developing the plant, was fined 200,000 yuan by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).
The major investor in the project, Dragon Aromatics (Zhangzhou) Co., Ltd (腾龙芳烃（漳州）有限公司), a subsidary of Taiwan's Xianglu Tenglong Group, put in an application to alter the raw materials used in the plant. However, work on this section of the plant began before final approval had been given.
Another subsidiary of the group, Xianglu Petrochemicals (翔鹭石化), has also run into problems at it purified terephthalic acid (PTA) plant in Xiamen. Residents who live close to the plant frequently complain about a disturbing smell from the factory. The plant was reported to have been fined by the MEP when it first began production, but little has changed.
The Protests against PX Plants in China
The Zhangzhou PX project was originally to be located in Xiamen but the site of the plant was moved to Zhangzhou in 2008 after local residents protested the 10.8 billion yuan development on environmental grounds in 2007.
The plant is located in the Gulei Economic Development Zone, which is located on a natural deep-water harbor about 100 kilometers south of Xiamen. Other petrochemical projects, including a 100-billion yuan petrochemical complex, a 38-billion-yuan ethylene cracker and a $950-million oil storage site, are also being developed in the industrial zone.
Large public protests have led to the shelving of two other PX projects in recent years, with the Dalian government reacting to public pressure in 2011 and the coastal city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province also scrapping plans to construct a PX plant in 2012. Earlier this year, residents of Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan, also took to the streets to oppose the planned construction of a nearby PX plant.
The motivating factor behind these public protests is widespread concern about the health effects of living close to a chemical plant.
In her proposal to National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in 2007, Zhao Yufen (赵玉芬), a chemistry professor at Xiamen University, said that PX was a dangerous chemical and a carcinogen. Ma Jun (马军), a well-known Chinese environmentalist, worries that the production of PX risks the safety of local residents.
Arguments in Support of PX Plants
Cao Xianghong (曹湘洪), the director-general of the Chemical Industry and Engineering Society of China (CIESC) and an member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), said in a show produced by China Central Television (CCTV) that PX is a chemical of low toxicity and that "no existing evidence proves it as a carcinogen and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified PX as Group 3 carcinogen" (to be accurate, Group 3 carcinogens are chemicals that are "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans" i.e. there is no existing evidence that can clearly determine whether it is a carcinogen or not.
In terms of the issue of public safety, some experts have argued that in many developed countries, PX plants and residential areas stand right next to each other, and that this has not resulted in any panic.
However, Yuan Dongxing, a professor of Environment Science from Xiamen University told the EO in 2011 that the international standard is for PX plants to be built at least 70km from a city, while in mainland China the distance is around 20 km, in the case of Xiamen, before the decision was made to move the site, the proposed plant would have been just 7 km from the city.
The Persistence of PX Production
Paraxylene is a raw material that is used in the production of PTA and PET, important raw materials for the textile, tyre and bottling industry.
Paraxylene production in China has a 25-year history. Currently China has become both the world's largest PX producer and consumer. By 2009, China had 13 PX production enterprises, mainly operating under Sinopec, CNPC and CNOOC.
There is currently not enough of the chemical produced to meet demand and China is having to import more PX.
In 2000, China manufactured 88 percent of the paraxylene it consumed domestically, by 2012, this figure had dropped to 53 percent. It's this situation that has spurred domestic PX production.
The country imported an estimated 4.7 million tons of PX in 2012, much of it used to meet the demands of booming of downstream industries such as PTA.
Japan, Korea and Saudi Arabia are all expanding their investments in the paraxylene industry in order to cater to growing demand in the Chinese market.
The chief engineer of China National Petroleum & Chemical Planning Institute (石油和化学工业规划院), Li Junfa (李君发), says that the price of PX will be very unstable if China's reliance on exports continues to increase and that this will harm the industrial chain as a whole.
Links and Sources
Economic Observer: Local Official Confident About Controversial Chemical Plant
China Business News: 漳州PX项目爆炸背后 所属集团环保记录不佳
Southern Weekly: 福建漳州PX项目厂区发生爆炸 无人员伤亡
Southern Weekly: 厦门PX后传 ‘隐姓埋名’进漳州
People’s Daily: 人民日报探析PX之祸： PX产业，我们可以不发展吗
Xinhua News: 福建漳州古雷石化厂区发生爆炸