Tibetan nature reserve shrunk to make way for mines

Open-cast mining in the ecologically significant Muli valley, in China's north-western Qinghai province, is polluting water and poisoning livestock

The grass is black, the road is black and the cows are black.

This is Muli, a mountain valley 4,000 metres up on the Tibetan plateau in China’s north-western Qinghai province. The Datong, Sulei and Jiangcang rivers, all tributaries of the Yellow River, flow through its high pastures.

Below those pastures lie 3.5 billion tonnes of high-quality coal, and with them the promise of riches. For more than 10 years, thousands of miners and merchants have been flooding into the once unknown Muli plateau township, now a key provincial coal producer.

See also: photos of the opencast mining in Qinghai

The meltwater flowing off the mountains is dirty, and coal dust blows over the green pastures.

The Muli coal fields include Jiangcang and Juhugeng, which are already being mined, and the as yet undeveloped Hushan and Duosuogongma sites. These four areas cover almost 113 square kilometres, and contain 3.5 billion tonnes of identified coal reserves – more than 87% of Qinghai’s total. Mining at scale started here in 2003.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for planned mines at Hushan and Duosuogongma pointed out that these lie within the Sanheyuan section of Qilian Mountain Reserve, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) requested a moratorium on development.

The Sanheyuan Reserve was designated a protected area by the Qinghai government in 2005. In the official document confirming this status, it is described as playing a role in protecting the wetlands, glaciers, endangered species and forest ecosystems of Qilian. The law prohibits mining within nature reserves.

But in August 2013, the provincial government adjusted Sanheyuan’s borders with agreement from the MEP. The reserve lost almost 90,000 hectares – 5% of its area – leaving the two planned mining areas outside of its boundaries. The Qinghai Environmental Protection Office offered no reason for the change on its website.

Then on May 19 this year, a tendering process for contracts to oversee the construction of mines and civil engineering works at Duosuogongma was launched.

An official at Qinghai Forestry Office’s Wildlife and Nature Reserve Bureau confirmed that, as Hushan and Duosuogongma were no longer within a reserve, mining could go ahead. Plans for the changes and scientific studies have shown that the adjustment to the reserve boundaries has also made mining of heavy-metal deposits possible.

Pollution threat to the Yellow River

Muli’s vast coal deposits are easy to reach via open-pit mining. But this method, which removes large quantities of earth and rock, has catastrophic consequences for local ecology. The coal dust from the mines blows over the grasslands, turning both the grass and the livestock black.

Sangde, a herder, lives near the Jiangcang mine. He told us his cattle are weaker than before. The mine is constantly expanding and in winter when the dust is bad the sheep eat coal with their grass and develop coughs. Some die.

Worst of all, the water is now undrinkable.

The mine took over pastures used by another herder, Lalongjia, who also runs a shop in the town. He was given tens of thousands of yuan in compensation, but said he’d rather things went back to the way they used to be. In the past, the locals drank from the Zhaolonggou River, which flows down from the mountains. But the water they once drank straight from the river is now filthy. The mine company has drilled wells to provide free water to the locals, but those who have come here to work have to pay 30 yuan per tonne.

At Jiangcang, the mine’s water inlets and outlets both lie on the river. A herder named Desang described how strangely coloured waste-water gets dumped in the river. He now walks to mountain springs or travels even further by motorbike to get drinking water.

In December 2010, the State Council identified this area of Qinghai as part of the Qilian glacier and water sources region, including it on a list of 25 areas of China with key ecological functions. A similar document from the Qinghai government in March this year described the region as China’s best preserved cold-temperate mountainside forest and, as the source of a number of different rivers, important for protecting the oases of eastern Qinghai, the Hexi corridor in Gansu and western Inner Mongolia. It went on to say that Qilian and the area around Qinghai lake accounts for one quarter of Qinghai’s water sources.

But protection of the sources of water in Muli and nearby is a cause for concern, and the Yellow River and Qinghai Lake are threatened by pollution.

Rivers criss-cross Tianjun county, where Muli sits. The Buha, which flows through the county town, continues on to Qinghai Lake. Several other rivers that traverse the two active mining areas, Jiangcang and Juhugeng, form part of the hydrography of the Yellow River.

An employee of the Muli Coalfields Management Office told us that the mines have installed some water-treatment equipment in the last two years, though admitted there was none originally. He also stressed that waste-water is all reused. But a worker with the environmental and forestry authorities monitoring team said that one mine was recently shut down for a period as a result of releasing untreated waste-water.

Destroying the permafrost

There are also serious concerns over the destruction of permafrost by open-cast mining.

Mai Fangdai is head of the environmental engineering department at Beijing Huayu Engineering, a subsidiary of China Coal Technology and Engineering Group, and contributed to the technical evaluation of the environmental impact assessment for the Muli coalfields. She told us that, along with many other experts, she had supported a statement in the EIA calling for the use of mine shafts in Muli, rather than open pit mining.

“The report pointed out that it takes thousands of years for permafrost to form, and that it is hugely important for maintenance of regional water sources, while open pit mining is highly destructive of permafrost. Mine shafts might cause subsidence, but they are much less damaging,” Mai said. “But it looks like that report hasn’t been implemented.”

Permafrost is a subsurface layer of frozen soil, described as the “sponge” of plateau wetlands. Sheng Yu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Cold and Arid Regions Research Institute, explained how wetland ecologies rely on permafrost. The “active layer” above it, which thaws during summer, supplies wetlands with water, while the year-round subsurface frozen layer prevents water from seeping deeper into the soil and so benefits surface ecologies. In some places on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, receding permafrost has accelerated degradation of pasture and worsened desertification.

According to Sheng, “the destruction of permafrost caused by open pit mining is often irreversible.”

So how did Qinghai allow such a destructive mining project to start?

“There’s tension between environmental protection and economic development,” one Qinghai environmental-protection official said privately. “Think about it, the Sanjiangyuan Reserve covers half of Qinghai’s land area – how many economic opportunities are lost as a result?”

In China’s 2013 provincial GDP rankings, Qinghai came second from bottom, behind only Tibet. And Muli, with its 3.5 billion tonnes of quality coal, has been designated as a major source of energy for the province’s “circular economy zone”. And so despite the needs of the nature reserves, the mines have been given the green light.

Li Xudong, deputy head of the environmental-impact assessment department at the Qinghai Environmental Protection Office, said that despite issuing plenty of orders for companies to make changes, such as burying mining waste, success is elusive: “There’s a limit to what we can do, and progress has been slow.”

Interns Geng Huafang, Zhou Tinging and Li Xiaoxue contributed to this article, originally published by

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