Chinese City Halts Copper Smelter After Protest over Pollution Fears

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Handout / Reuters

Residents protest a copper plant in the Chinese city of Shifang, in Sichuan province, on July 2, 2012

After days of protests, a city in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan has relented and decided to halt construction of a molybdenum and copper plant. Thousands of demonstrators in Shifang, a city of about a half-million people, had massed on the streets since Sunday to express concern about the potential environmental impact of the plant. Environmental worries have become a leading cause of public protest in China, and in some cities residents have blocked projects after mass displays of discontent.

The Shifang protests were closely followed on Chinese microblogs, particularly once they turned violent on Monday. Some protesters damaged local government offices, and police used clubs, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators. State media reported at least 13 people were injured. On Tuesday, perhaps realizing that their tough response was doing little to dampen locals’ fears, Shifang authorities announced that work on the plant would be halted. “Shifang will henceforth not continue construction on this project,” Shifang’s Communist Party secretary Li Chengjin said in a statement posted on the city’s website. The city had argued that the $1.6 billion plant, a project of Sichuan Hongda, one of China’s leading smelters, was safe and met all necessary environmental requirements. It even noted earlier in the week, as protests flared, that copper and molybdenum were both essential elements for human nutrition, and that copper was one of the earliest metals used by humans. But those arguments failed to calm fears of possible leaks of harmful by-products, including arsenic. “We can’t leave,” read one petition that called for citizens to take to the streets. “But heavy-metal pollution is extremely dangerous to humans.”

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Shifang was one of the areas badly hit by the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed at least 69,000 people, and the Sichuan Hongda plant was seen by the local government as a key development project and part of a long process of rebuilding after the widespread destruction four years ago. But the earthquake also reinforced fears of the susceptibility of industry to damages and the possibility of dangerous leaks after a natural disaster. The 2008 earthquake destroyed two chemical plants in Shifang, which forced 6,000 people to evacuate after 80 tons of ammonia leaked.

The local authorities also said those organizing protests would be punished, and they also tried to weaken the demonstrators politically, saying their actions fueled support for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing opposes. But for support, protesters could look to a series of NIMBY (not in my backyard) demonstrations around the country in recent years by average citizens who fear the harmful environmental effects of large plants in their cities. In 2007, residents of the coastal Fujian city of Xiamen took to the streets to block construction of a paraxylene plant. The chemical, also known as PX, is used in making plastics and can be harmful to humans after prolonged exposure. Last year more than 10,000 people marched in Dalian to voice concerns about a PX plant in that northeastern port city after a tropical storm breached a seawall, revealing potential vulnerabilities. The Dalian government said the plant would be moved, but earlier this year CNN reported that it had resumed production.

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Likewise, the victory by protesters in Shifang could prove temporary. In his statement ordering a halt to construction of the plant, party secretary Li denied that there were any legitimate concerns about the project and instead blamed resistance on a lack of understanding by residents. “Because our early propaganda work wasn’t well done, it led to the masses not understanding, not comprehending and not supporting this project,” Li, the top local official, said. He concluded by asking “the masses to exhibit reasoned restraint, believe the party committee and the government can properly settle this matter according to the law.”

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