Village's plight points to big China problem

Pollution protections falter as economy grows

September 04, 2006|By JIM YARDLEY | JIM YARDLEY,New York Times News Service

URAD QIANQI, China -- Dark and perfumed with a chemical stench, the liquid waste from two paper mills overwhelmed the tiny village of Sugai. Villagers tried to construct a makeshift dike, but the toxic water swept it away. Fifty-seven homes sank into a black, polluted lake.

The April 10 industrial spill, described by five residents of the village in Inner Mongolia, was a small-scale environmental disaster in a country with too many of them. But Sugai should have been different. The two mills had been sued in a landmark case, fined and ordered to upgrade their pollution equipment after a major spill into the Yellow River in 2004.

The official response to that 2004 spill, praised by the state-run news media, seemed to showcase a new, tougher approach toward pollution - until the later spill at Sugai showcased that local officials had never carried out the cleanup orders. Now, the destruction of Sugai is a lesson in the difficulty of enforcing environmental rules in China.

"The smell made me want to vomit," one villager said recently, as he showed the waist-high watermark on the remains of his home.

There is no shortage of environmental laws and regulations in China, many of them passed in recent years by a central government trying to address one of the worst pollution problems in the world. But those problems persist, in part, because environmental protection is often subverted by local protectionism, corruption and regulatory inefficiency.

Even as many domestic and international environmental groups credit China with beginning to take the environment seriously, pollution is worsening in some crucial categories. Emissions of sulfur dioxide, the building block of acid rain, rose by 27 percent between 2000 and 2005; government projections had called for a 20 percent reduction.

"It is clear the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection is coming to a head," said Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, according to the official New China News Agency.

Despite its rising public profile, the State Environmental Protection Administration remains one of the weakest agencies in the central government bureaucracy and has sought to increase its regulatory powers. For years, it has complained that local environmental protection bureaus are accountable to local officials rather than the state agency.

In early August, SEPA announced that it would establish 11 regional offices to monitor pollution problems better. The agency also announced that local officials eligible for promotion would be judged on their pollution track record, in addition to how well they deliver economic growth.

Public disgust over pollution is growing. In May, the official English-language newspaper China Daily reported that more than 50,000 disputes and protests arose in 2005 over pollution. Public complaints to the national environmental administration rose by 30 percent.

In Urad Qianqi, a city along the Yellow River that encompasses Sugai, officials delayed for almost five weeks before refusing to be interviewed about the spill. Provincial officials also declined to talk, as did administrators with the paper mills and the local irrigation district.

For decades, the two factories, Saiwai Xinghuazhang Paper Co. and Meili Beichen Paper Co., dumped their toxic sludge directly into the Yellow River. Five years ago, the introduction of new regulations ended that dumping, and factories began pumping the waste instead into a long drainage canal connected to the region's irrigation and flood protection system.

But in June 2004, the commission that regulates the irrigation system decided to address rising water levels in the system by dumping polluted canal water into the Yellow River. The release created a pollution slick that killed tens of thousands of fish and plunged the downstream city of Baotou into a drinking water crisis that lasted several days.

After the 2004 spill into the Yellow River, the city of Baotou was awarded almost $300,000 in damages from the two factories and the irrigation district in what state news media called the first pollution lawsuit on the Yellow River. Government agencies ordered the factories shut down to install water recycling and treatment equipment. SEPA ordered the mills to comply with national water emission requirements.

Officials in Urad Qianqi decided instead to build large, temporary wastewater containment pools directly beside the river. Li Wanzhong, director of the Inner Mongolia Environmental Protection Bureau, concluded that those pools were a threat to the river. China Environment News, the official publication of the state environmental administration, reported that Li had ordered Urad Qianqi to close the factories if they continued to violate emissions standards.

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