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'Get out': Over 1,000 take to the streets in China to protest oil refinery

BEIJING – Over 1,000 chanting demonstrators took to the streets of the southern Chinese city of Kunming on Thursday to protest plans for a state oil refinery - the latest sign of popular anger at environmental pollution.

Some carried signs emblazoned with, “PX… Get out of Kunming,” in reference to paraxylene, a chemical used to make plastic products. If inhaled or absorbed, paraxylene can damage to the central nervous system.

Protesters who spoke to NBC News put the number of demonstrators at around 1,000, while The Associated Press reported that about 2,500 had attended. There was no explanation for the discrepancy and Kunming police declined to comment.  

The Kunning demonstration - the second in the city this month - comes amid growing anger against pollution and environmental degradation brought on by unchecked economic development throughout China.

According to the newspaper China Daily, pollution levels have gotten so bad they're creating respiratory problems, prompting residents to seek air purifiers and face masks. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

"We don't need speedy development. What we need is a healthy and peaceful country," Kunming resident Liu Yuncheng told The Associated Press. "I still haven't given birth to a baby. I want to be pregnant and I want a healthy baby."

China National Petroleum Corp’s (CNPC) construction of paraxylene-producing petrochemical plants has sparked protests from Ningo to Xiamen. In the case of Ningbo, thousands of residents clashed with police in October, eventually prompting officials there to halt construction of an installation.

Protesters in Kunming told NBC News by telephone that they had tried to march towards city hall, but were stopped by police who formed a security cordon around them.  By mid-afternoon, demonstrators had filtered through the blocks by using side streets, effectively ending the protest.

In Kunming, local government and company officials have tried to assuage health concerns by assuring residents that the plant would maintain strict environmental standards, and not necessarily produce paraxylene.

These assurances did not assuage many residents’ fears.

Thousands of pigs have been found dead in a Shanghai river that is a major source of water for residents. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

“I don’t know if this protest will be effective or not,” one organizer said. “But if the government continues to build this plant, I’ll keep protesting.

Another protester said she had been pulled in for questioning by local authorities this week for about nine hours. She did not participate in Thursday’s protest.

Officials from CNPC were not available for comment.

According to the South China Morning Post, officials successfully blocked a similar protest against another proposed CNPC refinery in the provincial capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu.  Government officials announced an earthquake drill and effectively sealed off a number of landmarks where the rally had been planned, the newspaper reported. 

The Associated Press, and NBC News’ Le Li and Yanzhou Liu contributed to this report.


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