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A Stand Against China's Pollution Tide


By Edward Cody
Washington Post
January 12, 2006


Local Official Forces Action On Fouled Drinking Water

Xiangtan, China -- Tired and frustrated, Wang Guoxiang and other Xiangtan city
officials were slurping a midnight snack of instant noodles last Friday when the
anti-pollution chief for Hunan province walked into their crisis room.
Immediately, Wang said, he stopped eating and shouted at the visitor.
At the top of his voice, he insisted that something be done to stop the
discharge of poisonous metals that had begun three days earlier into the slow,
meandering Xiang River, from which Xiangtan, 800 miles south of Beijing, draws
its drinking water. As a people's delegate, Wang recalled complaining to the
environmental official, he and his allies had been fighting for months for more
controls on upstream smelters but had found little support from the provincial authorities.

"You guys pay no attention to the safety of drinking water for our Xiangtan
people. If you can't solve the problem this time, your position is in danger,"
Wang said he told the anti-pollution chief, Jiang Yimin. "And I wasn't kidding," he added.

The late-night confrontation in Xiangtan, a sprawling city of 500,000, was a
telling episode in China's latest pollution drama: the accidental release into
the Xiang River of heavy doses of cadmium, a likely carcinogen, by a state-owned
smelter in an industrial park about 25 miles upstream.

The fouling of the Xiang River attracted wide attention, but it was far from
unique as China struggles to reconcile breakneck economic growth with protection
of the environment. After more than two decades of swift industrialization, a
recent government report found that up to 70 percent of the country's rivers and
lakes are seriously polluted.

In reaction, extensive national regulations have been put into place, including
a government decision Sunday requiring local officials to immediately notify
officials in Beijing of any toxic spills. But on the ground, business owners and
Communist Party officials often cooperate closely. Enforcement of environmental
rules has often been lax, and the result has been frequent contamination of the
waterways that China's 1.3 billion people depend on for drinking water.

At about the same time that Xiangtan faced its pollution crisis, a frozen pipe
burst in eastern Henan province, releasing six tons of diesel fuel that floated
in a 40-mile-long slick down a branch of the Yellow River. Authorities said 63
water pumps had to be shut down, including some at Jinan, the capital of
neighboring Shandong province.

Farther south, Guangdong provincial authorities announced Tuesday that water
drawn from the Bei River was safe to drink again three weeks after an
unauthorized discharge of cadmium. And the famed Pearl River, which runs through
Guangdong into the South China Sea, has turned dangerously saline at its
southern end because of low water levels and high tides.

Xie Shaodong, an environmental specialist at Peking University, said China is
passing through a stage of economic development in which, as the history of
other countries has shown, ecological damage is to be expected. To halt the
degradation, he said, China's environmental protection agencies should be
granted more power and the news media should be allowed to report more fully on the issue.

Although pollution has long been recognized as a major problem in China, local
officials and the government-controlled press have focused particular attention
on it recently because of an internationally embarrassing spill in November. In
that episode, benzene contamination of the Songhua River forced a cutoff of
drinking water in Harbin, a major city 650 miles north of Beijing, and sent
toxic waste downstream to cities and towns in the Russian Far East.

Local officials made the Songhua calamity worse by concealing it for several
days, leading to complaints from Russia and, ultimately, sanctions from China's
central government and the new notification rule issued Sunday. Officials
involved in the coverup were dismissed and one committed suicide. But as Wang's
experience in Xiangtan showed, the instinctive reaction of many local party and
government officials is still to conceal and minimize.

Only hours before Jiang walked into the Xiangtan crisis meeting Friday evening,
Wang had learned that the city's Environmental Protection Administration had
measured cadmium levels at 25 times the amount considered safe for drinking
water. His own measurement, Wang said, showed even higher levels.

Cadmium, a soft element found in metal ores, can cause liver, kidney and bone
disease if ingested in large quantities. For most of the year, Wang said, he and
two colleagues in the People's Congress, an appointed city council, had been
trying to persuade provincial authorities to tighten controls over the smelters
upstream from Xiangtan, which he said frequently dump dangerous quantities of
cadmium and other elements into the river.

Frustrated by the lack of response at the provincial level, Wang had arranged
for Xiangtan's Environmental Protection Administration to test the water every
10 days. When he received Friday's report, "I just couldn't believe my eyes," he
said in an interview.

Wang alerted Communist Party officials in the city, who met into the night.
Jiang made his appearance about midnight and, before dawn, set in motion a
large-scale cleanup operation. Later that day, he and provincial environment
officials announced at a news conference that the cadmium would be neutralized
with chemicals dumped into the river and diluted with water diverted from
upstream reservoirs.

The cadmium entered the Xiang River on Jan. 4 when workers mistakenly diverted
river water into two basins used to separate cadmium and other smeltering
byproducts, Wang said. The water overwhelmed the basins and washed back into the
river, which carried the accumulated poisons downstream.

Jiang, the provincial anti-pollution chief, told reporters that authorities
halted the backflow and took other steps that ensured water supplies were safe.
"The Hunan provincial authorities properly handled the cadmium spill in the
Xiang River," People's Daily, the official party newspaper, concluded in its
Monday editions.

Local newspapers and broadcast stations were ordered to limit their reports to
Jiang's statement and were barred from reporting about drinking water conditions
in Xiangtan and Changsha, the capital of Hunan province farther downstream,
during the three days from Jan. 4 until emergency measures were put into place.
As a result, Xiangtan residents appeared unconcerned by the crisis. "If you want
to know about pollution, go ask the people at the Environmental Protection
Administration," said an elderly man basking in winter sunshine beside the Xiang River.

Provincial propaganda authorities also prohibited reporters from focusing on
Wang's earlier efforts to get the smelters to adhere to national environmental
standards, local journalists said. Jiang said in a telephone interview
Wednesday, however, that his office would now carry out an investigation.

"We will punish those who pollute the Xiang River," he added, "as well as
related officials from the local Environmental Protection Administration for
their malpractices."

The controlled press, meanwhile, published official assurances that drinking
water was safe because of the emergency chemical treatment by Xiangtan's water
distribution system. Nevertheless, the news reports said, the river water still
contained unhealthy amounts of cadmium.

 

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