BASF: the bad boy in China?

Feature Story - 2009-02-13
It sounds great, doesn’t it? BASF wants to build a mega factory bringing thousands of jobs to China’s poor western region. Not so fast.

A Greenpeace campaigner collects samples near a BASF factory in Shanghai, April 2008.

The Chinese government has all but given the go ahead for German chemical giant BASF to start work on a factory making methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI, in Chongqing. MDI is used to make foam insulation for fridges and houses.

Big factory, big pollution

This BASF factory will be the world's largest MDI plant making 400,000 metric tons of MDI a year.

What worries us here at Greenpeace is that although MDI is considered less toxic than other similar compounds, a common way of making it – which could be how BASF do it but they won't tell us (see below) – uses and makes several highly toxic chemicals as byproducts.

These poisonous chemicals include benzene and nitrobenzene.

This pair of lethal compounds were two of the pollutants in the Songhua River disaster of 2005, one of the worst chemical spills in China's history. A petrochemical factory explosion dumped about 100 tons of toxins into the river. The water supply for millions of people downriver had to be switched off.

Benzene is carcinogenic while nitrobenzene can damage the central nervous system, liver and the kidneys.

Risk to the river

Greenpeace is very concerned that BASF's mega factory project poses a very real risk to one of the country's key water systems.

The BASF factory site is just a couple of km from the upper reaches of China's biggest and most important river, the Yangtze. Some 440 million people live along the river's basin.

BASF shy about data

And what makes this even more worrying is that BASF has not yet released a full environment impact assessment report to the public.

Greenpeace would like BASF's report out in the open so that the real risks can be evaluated.

And we would also like the government to consider very carefully whether it is a good idea to give BASF the green light on this.

After all, BASF have a pretty poor record on environmental disclosure in China and a questionable pollution record.

BASF's bad record in China

While BASF publishes its environmental information in the US and Europe it has repeatedly refused Greenpeace's request to do the same for its 15 or so plants on the mainland.

We've done our own investigations too.

Last year we found that residents near a BASF factory close to Shanghai were complaining of health problems which they blamed on foul-smelling effluent expelled from that BASF factory.

So, does it really make sense for BASF to put a mammoth chemical plant right next to China's most crucial river?

Especially when BASF is being cagey about how the plant is going to operate.

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