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Proper Debate Needed On Petrochemical Plant

SCMP – Mar 24, 2009

New guidelines for the development of the Pearl River Delta issued recently by Beijing say new petrochemical plants in the region should be built in the less developed east and west, away from population centres including Hong Kong. But Guangzhou city officials have continued to insist that a controversial oil refinery already planned for Nansha in the densely populated heart of the delta would pose no threat to the environment because it would have modern pollution controls. To make its point, according to sources, the city government has ordered that an environmental impact assessment due to be issued soon for public scrutiny should be played down.

This attitude and lack of transparency is worrying. Unlike Beijing’s guidelines, the assessment report dismisses widespread expressions of public concern, in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong, about the proposed location of an industrial complex that is potentially hazardous and polluting. There is no question the plant is of great economic importance to Guangdong. But it will deliver benefits to the province wherever it is sited. Guangzhou officials appear to be putting the city’s own interests first.

It is good, therefore, to see that dissenting voices are not being drowned out, although the debate is largely hidden from the public gaze. Last week, sources close to the project said it may still be relocated, perhaps to Zhanjiang, a port city in the far west of the province. Now, as we report today, the deputy head of Guangdong’s Environmental Protection Bureau has lent some official weight to that possibility. He said if the complex was to be built at Nansha it would need a favourable environmental impact assessment, reinforcing the impression the provincial government is considering moving it elsewhere. It is easy to see why it would be unwise to locate the plant in Nansha, even if it operated to the highest safety standards. First, the navigational channel to Nansha runs through the Pearl River estuary. Even with constant dredging to remove accumulating sediment, it is still too shallow for large oil tankers. The planned construction of a bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai across the estuary will make navigation for big ships even more of a challenge. Second, in the case of an emergency, such as an oil spill from a tanker or a fire at the plant, the environmental fallout on nearby population centres could be disastrous.

The Pearl River Delta is one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the nation and the world. In terms of size of population, geography and economic profile, it is similar to the San Francisco Bay area in the United States. During its development into a manufacturing hub, the region’s environment has suffered colossal damage. Its future growth lies in developing the services sector and cleaning up its filthy air and water. What it does not need is an obnoxious petrochemical plant that might further adversely affect the region’s quality of life, real or perceived. By comparison, siting a petrochemical plant in the less densely populated and economically underdeveloped western parts of Guangdong would lead to more even development of the province.

The nation needs energy to maintain the pace of development. Environmental conflict over oil refineries, hydroelectric power stations and coal mines is inevitable. But it is disheartening to see local officials still pushing development at the cost of quality of life. The report on the environmental impact of the Nansha plant should be fully released so a proper debate on the pros and cons of siting it there can be held.

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