Railroading the environment

9 Dec
A train passes by residential buildings along the Beijing-Baotou railway in Beijing. The new high-speed railway to Shenyang is planned to go parallel with this route. Photo: Liu Sha/GT

Cross posted from Global Times

By Liu Sha

A train passes by residential buildings along the Beijing-Baotou railway in Beijing. The new high-speed railway to Shenyang is planned to go parallel with this route. Photo: Liu Sha/GT

Over 200 Beijing residents from over 34 residential communities living adjacent to the planned route for a new high-speed railway linking the city to Shenyang, the capital of Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, took to the streets Sunday to protest the plan, which has raised eyebrows within China’s environment ministry.

Cheng Yaoxuan, 32, a representative of the residents, told the Global Times that they have been protesting against the planned bullet trains because they believe the noise and electromagnetic radiation will be bad for their health, adding that their daily life will also be affected as the new line is planned to be less than 50 meters from residential buildings, kindergartens and elementary schools.

The protest came after a series of petitions over the past two weeks. The Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning on November 29 promised to figure out how to mitigate the noise and the radiation, but the main organization responsible for design and environmental assessment, the Third Railway Survey and Design Institute Group Corporation under the Ministry of Railways (MOR), did not put forward solutions.

“We are very disappointed,” Cheng said.

However, Mao Lifu, a director at the office of letters and calls under the Beijing commission, who was also at the scene of the protest, told the Global Times that the plan has yet to be finalized and that residents are overreacting.

Two ministries face off

The project has pitted the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) against the powerful MOR. The project, which will be impossible without the MEP’s approval of the environmental impact assessment, will be further delayed if no consensus can be reached.

Some argue that this will all depend on whether the MOR is able to defeat the MEP when it comes to decisions on the high-speed railway network.

“The MEP has never won before,” said an MEP official surnamed Sheng.

The MEP has failed to get two high-speed railway projects in Shandong and Hebei provinces shut down, with the MOR overriding its decisions, the China Times reported.

“The two ministries represent different interest groups and reflect a key question China has been facing – can some benefits be sacrificed for economic development?” Sheng told the Global Times, adding that for years, the answer has been “yes.”

Credibility in tatters

The railway, which according to a Xinhua News Agency report would allow people to travel between Beijing and Shenyang within two and a half hours, is planned to run from south to north between the capital’s east fourth and fifth ring roads. It was initially postponed for a year in 2009, then again in 2010 for two years, after the MEP vetoed the previous two environmental assessment reports handed over by the railway survey and design institute.

The third assessment, completed this July, triggered objections from nearby residents when first published in local newspapers.

Residents have been demanding a detour in the line, which is planned to go parallel with the current railway from Beijing to Baotou, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and pass beside densely populated urban areas in Beijing.

“We have gotten used to several trains passing by every day, but we dare not imagine the bullet trains running at intervals of 10 to 15 minutes,” said Cheng, adding that residents are confused as to why of all the routes provided, they picked the one that passes close to the most residential communities.

Shen Mengpei, an expert on radiation from the China Earthquake Administration, told the Global Times that side effects of the bullet train would include damage to hearing, cardiovascular and lung functions, and pregnant women and children would be affected in particular.

Although Dang Hui, the survey and design institute’s spokesman, said in August after large-scale opposition that some improvements would be made, including a speed limit of 50 kilometers per hour when passing through densely populated areas, residents felt swindled when they found out that there were no big changes in a new version of the third environmental assessment posted on the MEP website on November 19.

The assessment also showed that among the 2,782 surveyed residents living along the route, over 94 percent were supportive of the project, a result enraged residents claim was “faked” because many seemed to have been left out.

Dang said that the survey was done during the weekdays when many people were working.

“The survey is not trustworthy as it was collected from senior citizens who stay at home in the daytime. They were offered small gifts when they said yes,” a resident surnamed Zhou from the Gome Champion City residential community on Qingnian Road, which is right beside the planned route, told the Global Times.

Residents are also concerned about the impact on property prices. A 45-year-old resident surnamed Luo, who lives only 70 meters from the planned route and spent most of his life savings on his apartment, asked who would compensate him.

By Sunday, nearly 2,000 residents had signed a petition letter calling for a change in route. “The letter will be submitted to the MEP for it to consider whether to formulate a third assessment,” said Cheng.

Dang stated on November 29 that 1.15 billion yuan ($184.6 million) would be spent on a soundproof cover fully enclosing the railway.

Interests clash

While Beijing residents are protesting, many Liaoning locals support the project.

On the Beijing-Shenyang high-speed railway forum at popular search engine Baidu, opponents from Beijing and supporters from Liaoning engage in fierce debates. “This means a lot to economic development in Liaoning,” Gu Li, a Shenyang businessman, told the Global Times.

Gu said the protesters in Beijing are being too difficult. “Since a soundproof enclosure has been promised, why are they still whining? Have they considered sacrificing a little for the benefit of a larger number of people?”

Zhong Dajun, a macroeconomist with Peking University said “the project will play a critical role in the central government’s plan to boost the economy of Northeast China’s aging heavy industry base.”

Niu Fengrui, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the tussle between residents in Beijing and Liaoning reflects how collectivism is declining, and people’s awareness of environmental protection and individualism is rising in China. “To balance the interests from both sides, the officials have either to increase the compensation for residents living near the project, or accept their demands for a detour,” Niu added.

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