Hebei chemical leak and China’s protesters
Pollution in China’s Hebei region[edit | edit source]
The Hebei province in China completely surrounds the city of Beijing and the adjacent Tianjin municipality, home to an enormous port opening to the Yellow Sea – and the enormous and unprecedented sodium cyanide chemical explosion in August 2015. The incident illustrates just how heavily concentrated the chemical manufacturing and transportation industry is in Hebei.
The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, often referred to as one entity by the Chinese government for planning purposes or by scientists studying the environmental impacts of its industry, is notorious around the globe for its coal-driven air pollution. Yet as if that dirty energy, fired by some 30 times the world average for coal consumption, wasn’t a grave enough problem, it is needed to power the region’s heavy industry, including the Xingfei Chemical Company in Xingtai, in southern Hebei.
The density of industrial production sites in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei means that the 109.2 million Chinese citizens living there also must contend with other environmental catastrophes arising from businesses more concerned with profits than with regulatory compliance or safety upgrades. The fire and accidental chemical release at Hebei Xingfai on April 29, 2017, created a public health emergency for those near and downwind who were exposed to trichloroisocyanuric acid.
Hebei Xingfei Chemical Company leak[edit | edit source]
Trichloroisocyanuric acid, chemically a compound of C3O3N3Cl3, is one of five chemicals produced at the Hebei Xingfei facility. The company makes 30,000 tons of it per year at a sprawling, 90,000 square meter complex that employs 350 people. The extremely acidic chemical is used to maintain swimming pools, and as an industrial-strength bleaching and disinfectant solution. Other uses for C3O3N3Cl3 include bleaching fabrics and textiles, battery production, and agricultural applications.
Xingfei also produces sodium dichloroisocyanurate and sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate, which have similar uses, plus isocyanuric acid, which can be used in pharmaceuticals and the cosmetic industry. Finally, the Hebei plant also makes ammonium sulfate to be used as fertilizer.
Chinese authorities and company officials did not say how much C3O3N3Cl3 was emitted during the leak, but the affected residents in nearby Dongwang village say it was far more than the level of pollution to which they are routinely exposed. The local administrative government distributed a fact sheet that said it was “extremely concerned” and ordered environmental officials to investigate.
Environmental and health concerns[edit | edit source]
Chinese officials confirmed that a fire in a pipeline that carries C3O3N3Cl3 resulted in the emission of an irritating gas that affected Dongwang and “a few” other villages. Residents say it is far too normal for them to smell the acrid emissions from the chemical plants. Hebei Xingfei is one of more than a dozen chemical plants that surround them with acrid, caustic fumes that smell unpleasant – but the odor is the least of the consequences. Residents report respiratory difficulties, and a high cancer rate in the surrounding villages. Compensation also was paid for crops damaged by pollution.
The April 29 leak caused acute symptoms that included vomiting and respiratory distress, which was far more serious than chronic low level emissions. Village residents decided enough was enough.
Protests, police resistance and China’s activism[edit | edit source]
Immediately following the C3O3N3Cl3 leak, people from Dongwang and neighboring Ningjin county farming villages blocked the gate at Hebei Xingfei to demand that the chemical factory be shut down.
“This recent leak was really serious, and people decided they wouldn't stand for it anymore, and would stand up for their lives, and their environment," said one. "This was a spontaneous protest."
Thousands of people continued to demonstrate at the gates until May 11, 2017, when Chinese authorities dispatched an estimated 1,000 police in riot gear to control crowds that had continued to grow across 10 days of protests. Video released to Western media by Dongwang residents showed police warning protesters that they were in violation of Chinese national law, and then using pepper spray and batons to push them back from the Hebei Xingfei gate and disperse the crowd.
Xingtai police said in a social media post that villagers were “using pollution as an excuse” to block Hebei Xingfei and several other chemical companies in the same industrial park. Because trucks could not leave, protesters – in a twisted version of reality – were blamed for forcing the chemical companies to store “toxic, explosive goods” on the site, and causing a public safety disruption. Some protesters were detained and remained in custody, but others spoke of their resolve to force the Chinese government to act. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei air quality improvement plans call for stronger environmental controls and sharp reductions in pollution, but according to the Asian Development Bank, the environmental policy framework and enforcement remain ineffective.
The region’s residents have grown tired of government and corporate actors who do nothing, and Dongwang is just the latest site of protests in China’s growing environmental activism. Urban residents protest the unrelenting smog, and often are detained and taken in for questioning.
In cities and elsewhere, Chinese have become more afraid of the pollution and climate challenges than they are of the authoritarian regime. In the northeast city of Daqing, hundreds of people with banners demonstrated against Zhongwang Holdings and a new aluminium smelter in February 2017 before they were dispersed. Yet when reporters called the Daqing police station to verify details, even the police admitted the truth: “Everyone in Daqing is against the project,” said the source.
Also in February, five lawyers filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the respective Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei government authorities for their failure to act on behalf of citizens and curb air pollution by enforcing laws. The attorneys refused to drop the case and are under pressure from judicial authorities, but at least one has received a visit from the police and stepped away from the suit.
Chinese censorship authorities issued a blanket ban on any discussion of the case – but it is unlikely to silence the attorneys demanding change, and the growing number of Chinese taking to the streets to stop Hebei Xingfei and other companies from poisoning them and demanding that officials act