Can Zibo really turn green?

An east China city's hopes for clear water and blue skies have been shattered by companies that continually flout environmental regulations. Lu Dongting reports from Shandong province.

Chang Benfeng, Wang Bingwen and Zhou Jingxin live in a residential compound in the town of Zhongbu, near the city of Zibo in east China’s Shandong province. They showed me the buildings where they live and the pollution they have endured in recent years. Chang placed a magnet on the ground, and demonstrated how it instantly attracted a layer of iron particles, of which a new layer falls from the sky every day. Over the northern and eastern walls of the compound, trucks laden with iron ore and coal rumbled back and forth, stirring up a "black snow" of dust and iron particles.

The compound consists of 29 buildings constructed by Shengli Oilfield for workers at Zibo’s iron and steel operation. It was designed to be an orderly, close-knit and green community. and the 900 residents used to describe it as something of a utopia. But all that was to change in 2004, when Jinling Iron set up shop next door.

Song Xichen, deputy general manager of Shengli Iron and Steel, explained that since 2003 the price of iron ore has rocketed from 240 yuan (US$32) a tonne to about 1,240 yuan (US$164) today. This led Jinling Iron to ignore environmental concerns and set up Iron Eagle: a huge iron smelting operation next door to the residential compound. Dust from the stockyard and the trucks, soot from the chimneys and non-stop noise from loaders and bulldozers began to torment the residents.

Soon they had had enough. They complained to the authorities about this "environmental calamity" and addressed the firm directly on a number of occasions, but there was little improvement. They also tried to sue the company, but both the local and city courts found reasons not to hear the case.

On November 24, 2005, Zibo’s environment authorities informed Iron Eagle that they were in breach of the Environmental Protection Law and the Environmental Impact Assessment Law, and announced that the firm was responsible for "relatively prominent environmental problems." It was fined for environmental damage, and swift changes were demanded. But a year and a half later, there still have been no real improvements.

Zibo is currently turning itself into an "ecological city." Its action plan, dubbed "clear water and blue skies," is in its final year and is crucial to its goal of becoming a "national model environmental city." It would be reasonable, then, to expect the city to clean up its air and carry out environmental impact assessments in its development and planning. But public complaints say that chimneys continue to belch fumes all over the city. I spent an afternoon investigating, and found that in the fields surrounding the city there were unlicensed smelters every few kilometres, the majority of which were built in the last two years. And more are still being built, polluting the air and taking up space on fertile fields.

I obtained a copy of a Zibo government statement about the firms blamed for the city missing its environmental targets, published on April 19this year. It included a list of companies that failed to carry out environmental protection measures, including Iron Eagle and some 20 others. The notice demanded they meet environmental protection standards by the end of May. Another 263 firms, many either in Zibo’s ceramics industry or the iron and steel sector, were also required to reduce dust, soot and sulphur dioxide emissions by October 31.

But the month of May has already passed, and have those firms cleaned up their act? According to Zibo’s environmental authorities, they have not. The head of Zibo Environmental Bureau’s complaints department, Wang Deshi, made this clear: “We didn’t approve any of these firms when they started up, nor would we have been able to. With the state so concerned with environmental protection at the moment, I doubt they would have been approved at provincial or national level either.”

Standing in front of the notice board at the Zibo Environmental Bureau, local residents still want to know why these firms can keep on polluting, despite failing in their environmental responsibilities. When will Zibo’s dreams of clear water and blue skies come true?

Homepage photo by  © Rob Welham 

Dongting Lu is a Beijing-based reporter.