LI YANG Sanhe village case shows ‘green’ futility
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.