Authorities in Shanghai on Tuesday denied reports that they plan to relocate a paraxylene (PX) project to a chemical industrial park in the city's Jinshan district following several days of protest by local residents.
Hundreds of Jinshan residents marched on Tuesday to the district government offices, following a much larger protest involving thousands of people over the weekend.
"The Gaoqiao petrochemical plant will close, not relocate," a post on the Jinshan district government's official account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo said.
"There is no provision for a PX plant in the environmental assessment for the [Jinshan] chemical industrial park," it said.
"Neither will there be a PX project in the future."
The environmental assessment from the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Science which "showed that no PX program was included in its development plan before 2025," according to the Shanghai-based Eastday.com news site.
But the statement came after a Jinshan government official apparently admitted the project had been in the works.
"This project is only at the planning stages. It hasn't been implemented," an official who answered the phone at the Jinshan district government offices told RFA on Monday.
"There will be an announcement and an environmental impact assessment as well," the official said.
Video of the earlier protests posted on YouTube showed thousands of people marching with banners that read "PX Out," and chanting "Give us back our Jinshan."
Rows of police guarded the district government buildings and controlled the crowd, online photos showed.
Chock-full of factories
Jinshan resident Wang Zaiming said the district is already chock-full of factories, and fears for the impact on the environment are growing among local people.
"This Gaoqiao chemical factory is currently located in the Pudong development zone, and they want to move it across to Jinshan, which is a chemical industrial zone," Wang said.
"All of the chemical plants in Shanghai are being relocated over here," he said. "People didn't realize this before, but now they do, and that's why they've come out in protest."
A protester at the scene surnamed Yang said there was a much stronger police presence on Tuesday.
"They have sent a lot of police here today," Yang said. "About 15 busloads of police arrived in Jinshan, as well as officials from all the local townships."
"The protesters are still here, and are all across the road outside the district government buildings," she said.
"There are several thousand people here ... some people said there were 10,000 here yesterday," Yang said.
She said local people are now worried that the police will use force to disperse the crowd.
"Of course, they'll suppress it; they are here to frighten people," Yang said.
"Yesterday I saw people getting beaten up by riot police ... I know they detained people [Monday] evening."
A Jinshan resident surnamed Zhu said local residents are very worried about the effects of a PX plant on their health.
"Pretty much everyone from all the townships in Shanghai turned out," Zhu said. "This was spontaneous; everyone seemed to know about it."
"Of course, it would affect our health," he said.
He said the government had also broadcast its denial of the planned project via SMS message to local people.
"I received it," Zhu said. "It said that there was no such project."
But he said local people doubted the government's word.
"There's no smoke without a fire," he said.
An official who answered the phone at the Jinshan district government declined to comment on Tuesday.
"I don't know about this," the official said. "You should call the propaganda department."
An official at the propaganda department referred all enquiries to the Jinshan government's official Sina Weibo account, while repeated calls to the Jinshan chemical industrial park offices rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Wu Lihong, an environmental campaigner based in the eastern province of Jiangsu, said PX plants are a highly sensitive topic with the general public.
"There is nowhere in China where PX plants are welcome," Wu said. "There have been movements opposing PX plants in Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo and other cities."
"This has led to plans to relocate these plants or to build them in other locations," he said.
Wu said a lack of transparency is usually behind such protests.
"A lack of freedom of information will sow many more doubts in people's minds," Wu said. "But the local government shouldn't send in large numbers of riot police to suppress the people's protest and to detain people."
"This will cause an even greater backlash among local residents," he said.
Protests come after blast
The Jinshan protests come after a massive blast ripped through a petrochemicals complex in the southeastern province of Fujian in April, following a string of earlier safety failures which local people say have damaged public trust in the petrochemicals industry.
Chinese authorities have tried to locate PX facilities in a number of major Chinese cities in recent years, including Dalian and Xiamen, only to meet with vocal public opposition each time.
In April 2014, thousands of protesters converged on government buildings in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in a mass protest against a planned PX plant in their neighborhood in Maoming city.
Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced China's growing middle classes to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest.
China has a comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation, but close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level, activists and experts say.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.