On Yunnan’s chromium trail

The dumping of 5,000 tonnes of toxic metal tailings next to an important drinking source has brought to light years of illegal disposal of factory waste. Meng Si reports.

In mid-August, the Yunnan-based blogger Dong Rubin revealed that a nearby factory in south-west China – Luliang Chemicals – had dumped 5,000 tonnes of toxic chromium tailings on a hillside in the township of Yuezhou. The resulting water pollution killed fish and livestock, endangered the drinking water of tens of millions of people and attracted widespread media attention across China.

Speaking to Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News, Dong explained the impact of the pollution incident: “At its highest, the most toxic type of chromium, hexavalent chromium, was 2,000 times over the limit. Contaminated water was flowing directly into the Nanpan River, which feeds the Pearl River.” The Pearl River is an important source of drinking water for the downstream city of Guangzhou.

Globalisation has moved chemical production towards China and has turned the country into the world’s largest producer of chromium tailings – a waste product of chemical processes. Chromium and its various compounds have a wide range of uses: major ones include electroplating, drug manufacture and textile dyes. According to Ministry of Commerce statistics, 10% of all manufactured products involves chromium at some point.

A long history

Chromium is a major heavy metal pollutant found in surface water in China, where it often becomes hexavalent chromium, identified as genotoxic and carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO). It can be absorbed by humans through inhalation, digestion and skin contact. Pollution from chromium slag has occurred in the Chinese provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Qinghai.

In 1992 a truck overturned in north-east China near the border with North Korea, spilling 1.5 tonnes of sodium dichromate – of which hexavalent chromium is a major part – polluting groundwater and poisoning 37 people.

After the recent news of chromium pollution in Yunnan, media investigations revealed that this was not a new problem – at least for local people. The website Yunnan.cn quoted residents of the village of Yangqiying as saying that trucks had been dumping “dark soil” since March, after which sheep started to die off, tobacco leaves grew mottled and white shirts washed in well water turned yellow. The villagers made a complaint to the local environmental authorities on June 12.

The official probe into the incident found that, starting in April this year, two truck drivers from Xingyi Sanli Fuel, in a bid to cut costs, had dumped over 140 truckloads of tailings in Luliang county’s Qilin district: one in Ciying village, 40 in Sanbao township and more than 100 in Yuezhou. In total, they dumped over 5,200 tonnes of chromium tailings.

But a reporter from New Express continued the investigation and looked through the local environmental protection bureau’s records of inspections at Luliang Chemicals. The reporter found that on six of seven visits between January 28 and July 25 this year, the bureau had recorded problems with the way chromium was handled. Further revelations came in a broadcast of CCTV’s News 1+1 on August 16: some chromium slag had been left untreated for as long as 17 years after production, dumped in the open near the Nanpan River.

According to the 2010 China Environmental Bulletin, by the end of that year there were still about 1 million tonnes of chromium slag piled in 12 provinces across China. Greenpeace discovered another seventy to ninety thousand tonnes of chromium slag in Yunnan in late August, said Ma Tianjie, a campaigner from the environmental group. They believe it was produced by Yundian Chemical Ltd. in Mouding, which has long since ceased production.

Governance problems

On August 13, Luliang county’s official microblog announced that two months earlier district environmental supervisors had informed the Luliang Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) that dangerous chromium waste had been found in the area, and asked bureau officials to inspect the chromium-tailings storage at the chemicals plant. It was later discovered that Luliang Chemicals and Xingyi Sanli Fuel had signed a deal in May regarding disposal of the chromium tailings without approval from the bureau. Drivers employed by Xingyi Sanli Fuel later dumped the tailings in Qilin district, also without authorisation.

The microblog also stated that on the morning of June 13 – the day the pollution alert was passed to the environmental protection bureau – government employees rushed to the scene, where they worked to remove 5,222 tonnes of chromium slag, 7,700 tonnes of polluted soil and 966 tonnes of polluted water (run-off from the tailings).

Officials from the EPB admitted to the Yangcheng Evening News that drivers had secretly dumped 1,000 tonnes of tailings, “polluting 100 cubic metres of stagnant water”. But despite local government claims on its microblog that all the waste had been cleared up in the three days after June 13, CCTV’s News 1+1 found on August 15 that the slag heap had been left uncovered, separated from the visibly dirty Nanpan River only by a wall. Under pressure, the plant ordered its workers to cover the tailings with asbestos tiles, build a covering and strengthen the wall.

On August 17, the Pearl River Water Resources Commission’s own investigation found that there were excessive levels of hexavalent chromium in the area of the Luliang Chemicals slag heap, describing it as a “serious matter that impacted the water security of both people and livestock.”

But there are also doubts about the monitoring. The local information office said that between 2009 and 2011 the county’s centre for disease control (CDC) took water samples from the reservoir at Xinglong village and that levels of hexavalent chromium had been found to be 0.004 milligrams per litre – within legal limits. But, according to the New Express, the centre’s head, Qian Xin, said that testing for hexavelent chromium had stopped in August 2009.

Following the discovery of the pollution, Yunnan’s environmental authorities failed to promptly inform the downstream provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong. After the incident was reported in the media, the Yunnan EPB announced that the water quality of the Nanpan as it left Yunnan was good, and on the same day Guangdong’s environmental authorities told Xinhua news agency that there was nothing unusual about water quality in the province and they would continue to monitor the situation carefully.

The two drivers who dumped the waste have since been arrested and face criminal charges; five others have been detained. Environmental officials from downstream Guangdong province said no changes in water quality had been observed and they would keep monitoring it closely. The drought in Yunnan might prevent the pollution from spreading to rivers – but, said Ma Tianjie from Greenpeace, if it rains no one knows what might happen to the lower reaches.

The continuing crisis

In the 1990s, China started to clean up the chromium industry, and many companies closed or merged. By 2005, only 25 were left, and the State Council – China’s highest administrative organ – ordered that all leftover tailings be safely dealt with by 2010. The Yunnan case shows this has not happened: large quantities of tailings are yet to be processed and dangerous dumping continues.

The incident is not at an end. Other reports show that “cancer villages” have started to appear. Chang Xiaoqiao, previously secretary of the technical office at Xinglong village near the chemical plant, told a Hunan-based newspaper that many villagers were suffering strange diseases, with 30 developing cancer. Qian Xin, from the Luliang CDC, confirmed that between 2002 and 2010 there were 14 incidences of cancer, with 11 people now dead – the youngest aged nine.

Chromium pollution has a major impact on the environment and restoring contaminated soil is difficult. In the 1970s, both Japan and the United States saw serious incidents of chromium pollution, the most famous being the 1993 case in California contested by the environmental activist Erin Brockovich, which formed the basis for the film of the same name. Developed nations have invested in methods for treating chromium waste, but to little effect. According to the China Chemical Times, many nations have instead reduced their production capacity and companies have closed down due to environmental pressures – and instead imported chromium compounds from developing nations, such as China. That has lead to rapid growth in the sector in China over the last 10 years, including the increased stockpiling of chromium tailings.

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office

Homepage image from Greenpeace