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But especially at the local level, many officials are loath to let activists influence how factories are run. Provincial, county and village officials depend on industry to advance economic growth and their own careers. By one government estimate, a total of $125 billion has been invested in China's chemical and petrochemical plants -- suggesting the size of the stakes. Even when a factory is shut down, it often reopens. The central government has capped the fines for environment violations at about $120,000, and provincial authorities often set even lower caps.

Anger over the lack of clean water and air is rising. According to Pan Yue, vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration, about 50,000 protests last year were due to pollution.

Authorities in Pingnan County, which includes Xiping, acknowledged in a statement to The Wall Street Journal that the Rongping plant was responsible for excessive pollution in its early years. They said Rongping has taken steps to rectify the problem since 2001 and discharge levels are now within government standards. Mr. Zhang agrees the situation has improved but says pollution is still excessive.
The plant pays a third of the county's tax and other revenues and has provided well-paying jobs for peasants in this mountainous part of Fujian Province. Officials cite the economic benefits in opposing the plant's closing.

The Rongping plant opened here in 1994. It had previously been in Fujian's capital, Fuzhou. Officials relocated it to take advantage of cheap hydroelectric power from Xiping's mountain streams and promote rural economic development. A state-owned chemicals company based in Fuzhou is the plant's majority owner, although the Pingnan County government held a 30% stake until 2004.

With the factory's arrival, Xiping's population quickly doubled to 2,000 people. The plant became Asia's largest producer of potassium chlorate, a chemical widely used in bleach, fireworks and other goods. But it was also spewing chromium-6 into the river and belching chlorine from its smokestacks, according to a later provincial court verdict and the Fujian Province Environmental Supervision Center. The center said a sewage sample contained more than 20 times the amount of chromium-6 allowed by national standards. The statement by Pingnan County authorities confirms that chromium and chlorine were discharged but doesn't specify the amount or the type of chromium.


Hong Kong Baptist University