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Chinese stroll in protest of petrochemical plant

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING -- Residents took to the streets of a provincial capital over the weekend to protest a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant backed by China's leading state-run oil company. It was the latest instance of popular discontent over an environmental threat in a major city.

The protest against a $5.5 billion ethylene plant under construction by PetroChina in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, reflected a surge in environmental awareness by urban, middle-class Chinese determined to protect their health and the value of their property. A similar protest last year, against a Taiwanese-financed petrochemical venture in Xiamen, in China's southeast, left that project in limbo.

The recent protest, which was peaceful, was organized through Web sites, blogs and cell phone text messages.

The protesters walked calmly through downtown Chengdu for several hours Sunday afternoon to criticize the construction of a combination ethylene plant and oil refinery in Pengzhou, 18 miles northwest of the city center. Some protesters wore white masks over their mouths to evoke the dangers of pollution. Witnesses said 400 to 500 protesters took part in the march.

Organizers circumvented a national law that requires protesters to apply for a permit by saying they were out for a "stroll."

Critics of the Pengzhou plan said in interviews yesterday that the government had not conducted proper environmental reviews of the project, which could pollute the air and water and lead to health hazards.

"We're not dissidents," said Wen Di, an independent blogger and former journalist living in Chengdu. "We're just people who care about our homeland. What we're saying is that if you want to have this project, you need to follow certain procedures, for example a public hearing and independent environmental assessment. We want a fair and open process."

Repeated calls to the joint- venture company building the plant, PetroChina Sichuan Petrochem Industry, went unanswered. The project's Web site says $565 million of the total investment will be dedicated to environmental protection.

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