LI YANG Sanhe vil­lage case shows ‘green’ fu­til­ity

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - Con­tact the writer at liyang@ chi­

There al­ways seems to be a turn­ing point in the en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion his­tory of de­vel­oped coun­tries. A se­ri­ous pol­lu­tion in­ci­dent can awaken the pub­lic and pro­duce a strict law as well as a pow­er­ful en­force­ment or­gan to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment.

How­ever, in China, be­fore the turn­ing point ap­pears, the coun­try al­ready has a large, if not tooth­less, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion law. En­force­ment de­part­ments and su­per­vi­sors also have ex­isted for a long time.

And the pub­lic and the lo­cal gov­ern­ments have al­ready be­come numb to pol­lu­tion in­ci­dents, which are bad enough that they would have been turn­ing points in many other coun­tries.

The cad­mium pol­lu­tion in the Sanhe vil­lage of Daxin county con­cen­trates almost all typ­i­cal el­e­ments of pol­lu­tion cases in China. Cad­mium, a soft, bluish white metal, is a key com­po­nent in bat­tery pro­duc­tion.

Were it not for me­dia ex­po­sure, the pol­lu­tion would be for­got­ten with the bank­rupt State-owned lead-zinc min­ing en­ter­prise along with the deaths of vil­lagers in the small county in south­west Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

The min­ing fac­tory, which op­er­ated from the mid-1950s to 2001, ob­tained lead and zinc from the ores, dump­ing the other as­so­ci­ated met­als, es­pe­cially cad­mium, with the waste wa­ter and tail­ings into a large waste-de­posit pool in a val­ley. The waste wa­ter and tail­ings pol­luted the Sanhe vil­lage’s ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter and farm­land, which af­fects some 500 farm­ers.

Dis­placed joints and bones, end­less pains and early death are common for vil­lagers.

Statis­tics from the Guangxi en­vi­ron­men­tal ge­ol­ogy in­sti­tute in 2000 show the cad­mium con­tent in the ir­ri­gate wa­ter is about 10 times above safe lev­els, and nearly 50 times higher than the safety stan­dards for the soil; it’s more than 10 times the ac­cept­able level in lo­cal grains.

A survey of the Guangxi oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease preven­tion and con­trol cen­ter in 2001 found that the cad­mium con­tent of almost all of the sam­pled 46 vil­lagers’ blood and urine sur­passed healthy stan­dards by a large mar­gin.

The vil­lagers en­trusted the two agen­cies to do the survey them­selves. The city and re­gional gov­ern­ment’s of­fi­cial survey re­sults in 2005 of the en­vi­ron­ment and the farm­ers’ health have been kept con­fi­den­tial un­til now.

The vil­lagers re­ceived com­pen­sa­tion from the min­ing fac­tory from the 1960s to 2001. After the fac­tory went bank­rupt, the gov­ern­ment paid them 120 kilo­grams of rice per per­son a year, and some pay­ments to not cul­ti­vate on the con­tam­i­nated soil any­more. But most vil­lagers, mostly old farm­ers, con­tin­ued to ir­ri­gate the pol­luted land with the wa­ter poi­soned by heavy met­als from the in­dus­trial waste pool.

The county gov­ern­ment in Daxin re­sponded to me­dia queries that it is a his­tor­i­cal is­sue, and even the peo­ple in charge of the en­vi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health de­part­ments have been changed many times, in­di­cat­ing that no one is ca­pa­ble of solv­ing the old is­sue.

The spe­cial fund cre­ated by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment to deal with the in­dus­trial waste pool has yet to reach the county gov­ern­ment, and the gov­ern­ment is still plan­ning the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­me­di­a­tion project.

The Guangxi gov­ern­ment re­sponded last week­end that all the vil­lagers will be moved to a new lo­ca­tion free from heavy-metal pol­lu­tion. But ex­perts say the heavy met­als in the vil­lagers’ bod­ies will stay with them for­ever and en­ter the soil again with their bone ashes.

The Sanhe vil­lage pol­lu­tion in­ci­dent shows that pol­lu­tion vic­tims still lack le­gal chan­nels to de­fend their le­gal in­ter­ests, and the gov­ern­ment largely stands at the side of the pol­luter. And the en­vi­ron­men­tal laws, lawen­force­ment bod­ies and su­per­vi­sors can­not make a dif­fer­ence in the fi­nal re­sults in set­tling the is­sues, be­cause they are de facto part of the gov­ern­ment.

The pres­sure of pub­lic opin­ion, stirred by the me­dia, and the pos­si­ble anger of the higher au­thor­ity may be the only things mak­ing the lo­cal gov­ern­ment un­com­fort­able.

Although the cen­tral au­thor­ity vowed re­peat­edly in re­cent years to clean the en­vi­ron­ment, the peo­ple be­lieve it wors­ened, es­pe­cially the air.

Chi­nese lead­ers ad­mit­ted at a re­cent eco­nomic con­fer­ence in Beijing that China’s en­vi­ron­men­tal ca­pac­ity has almost reached its limit. China has no choice but to trans­form its growth model. The trans­for­ma­tion can­not be done through a top-down im­ple­men­ta­tion process.

What the cen­tral au­thor­ity can do is to cre­ate func­tional le­gal chan­nels to arm the peo­ple with laws de­fend­ing their in­ter­ests; make the en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion de­part­ments in­de­pen­dent and pow­er­ful and free from gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence; in­crease the price of pol­lut­ing be­hav­iors by a large sum, and set up a life­long ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem for gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, whose de­ci­sions can in­flu­ence the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

To move the Chi­nese econ­omy in a more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly di­rec­tion, the gov­ern­ment must be trans­formed first. Yet the peo­ple de­serve their over­due pow­ers and chan­nels to mo­ti­vate the gov­ern­ment trans­for­ma­tion, which can­not be done by the gov­ern­ment it­self.


The pol­luted creek in Sanhe vil­lage of Daxin county in Guangxi on Dec 1.

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