A river runs through it

Jilin City is in the news again and not in a good way…

A river runs through it

The Songhua gets sampled

The city of Jilin’s tourism man must be tearing his hair out. His new tagline – “On the banks of the Songhua River” – looked like a good one, especially as Jilin already enjoys a reputation as the River City. The original tag dates back to a poem penned by the Kangxi Emperor on a visit to the town in 1682.

But Mr Tourism also has to deal with the city’s more modern claim to fame – and it is a lot less touristy.

Jilin’s less welcome legend – as the Chemical City – is one that is proving difficult to shake off. News this week of a possible chemical spill within the city’s limits is not going to make it any easier.

We first mentioned the case in last week’s issue. As we went to press, the local authorities were claiming that a mass hospitalisation of workers could only be explained as local hysteria.

But as of this week, the picture has changed. It seems that the workers may not have been imagining things after all, and a neighbouring chemical plant has been ordered to stop production while tests are carried out. This was according to a report that appeared briefly on the website of the State Administration of Work Safety Supervision, but which has since been removed.

Once they stop vomiting, locals may experience an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. In November 2005, explosions at the city’s Jilin Petrochemicals plant led to seven deaths and the evacuation of thousands more. The explosions also forced an 80km benzene slick out into the Songhua River, although it took local officials 10 days to admit as much. By the time that they came clean, the slick was on its way downriver. Press interest was intense as the benzene headed into Heilongjiang province and past the city of Harbin, where there was panic buying of water and food in city supermarkets.

It then moved on into the River. Amur and across the border into the Russian Far East, briefly paralysing the city of Khabarovsk before finally disappearing into the Sea of Japan.

It was all sufficiently embarrassing for the State Council to order high-level provincial sackings and Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao ended up writing a letter of apology to the Russian government. Jilin – and its chemical industry – had been at the heart of a major international incident.

The irony is that, without the Songhua, the city would never have established its chemical reputation in the first place. Access to plentiful water (the city has 1.8 times the national average in per capita terms), proximity to mineral resources and a robust local electricity generating capacity have all combined to provide “unique conditions” for chemical production, reports the Southern Weekly.

So Jilin’s 200-plus chemical companies – with their industrial chimneys, lumbering trucks and hard-hat employees – have become the city’s “totems”, says the Weekly. Not, perhaps, what the ‘Tourism Jilin’ team really wants to hear.

Jilin has tried to improve its reputation since the 2005 disaster. Smaller companies thought least inclined to invest in environmental safeguards are under pressure to close down. New projects that fail to meet environmental protection guidelines, or are forecast to require too much water from the Songhua, are also supposed to be blocked. Urban residents living closest to major production facilities have been re-housed and a major new industrial area to the “leeward side of the city” is now under construction.

But, unfortunately for the town, the 2005 explosions were not at decrepit minnow firms but in plant owned by CNPC Jilin, a state giant.

And local authorities have to balance better protection for the environment with economic growth imperatives. With chemical firms continuing to make up more than half the Jilin economy, the Chemical City is creating most of the jobs (and tax revenue).

So it looks like Mr Tourism has a lot more work to do.

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