Poisoned groundwater sparks media storm in China

A complaint about contaminated water in Shandong province has prompted widespread fears about the country's underground supplies

February’s New Year holiday brought China a fresh water scandal, triggered by reports that factories in Weifang city, Shandong province, were secretly discharging wastewater underground, polluting precious groundwater supplies.

Though it started with a very local complaint, the case has prompted a much wider debate about the state of the country’s groundwater and the impact of polluting factories on crucial resources. The story has also created a media frenzy, pitting the testimony of a local well-digger against official denials there is a problem.

The charge is that factories are using cheap methods to get rid of their wastewater, either by letting it seep slowly underground, or by digging deep holes in the ground and pouring the effluent inside so that it “disappears”. Reports from Weifang claimed wells up to 1,000 metres deep are being used.

There are no authoritative statistics on how many factories are using these methods or how much wastewater has made its way underground, but official figures make clear the seriousness of the groundwater problem. In 2011, the Ministry of Land and Resources published data indicating 55% of 200 cities monitored had “poor or very poor” quality groundwater and that quality had declined from a year previously in 15.2% of sites, according to Beijing News.

But according to the local government in Weifang, such abuse is not widespread. The city’s environmental protection bureau launched an investigation last month in response to reports, but said that they didn’t find any factories that were violating discharge regulations.

A section chief from the bureau also refuted claims that it is easy and cheap for factories to discharge their effluent underground, telling journalists that professional companies would be required to dig the necessary wells and the costs involved would cancel out the benefit to factories.

“Sinking a well 100-metres deep costs around 200,000 yuan, so you can imagine the costs for a 1,000-metre well,” the official said. “If a small enterprise is violating discharge regulations simply because it wants to avoid paying treatment costs, then the huge outlay needed to sink a well makes this totally not worth it.”

Digging wells for the textiles industry

But journalists have dug up evidence to the contrary. On February 24, China’s New Finance journal published an investigation by reporters in Shandong who had spoken to a 40-year-old local well digger in a bid to find out more about the problem of secret wells.

The well digger explained to the newspaper that it was easy and cheap for factories to dig wells to get rid of their contaminated water: three men can dig a 5-centimetre diameter drainage well in one day without the need for large-scale equipment, he said. For a factory, the smaller the diameter of the well the better, he explained, otherwise wastewater can easily overflow to the surface, where it can be detected.  He said he had just finished digging eight drainage wells for a chemical plant.

Growing demand from the textile, printing and dyeing industries – all huge water consumers – have pushed up this well digger’s earnings: in the past few years, his average annual income has been around 60,000 yuan (US$9,600). In 2012 it reached 100,000 yuan (US$16,000), he said.

According to his estimates, a printing and dyeing plant discharging 200 tonnes of wastewater every day would need six wells, with a likely cost of around 1,200 yuan. Environmental equipment needed to treat the wastewater costs of this kind of company would cost about 200,000 yuan, while daily operation costs would push the overall bill higher – treating their water properly is much more expensive than digging wells.

So far his biggest order has been for 200 drainage wells, he said. The customer was from Gansu province in western China.

An owner of a Shandong company told chinadialogue that, as far as he knows this kind of well is usually 50 or 60 metres deep.

China’s internet users have been weighing in on the debate, posting a constant stream of reports about factories in their local area discharging waste underground by digging seepage pits and wells. The People’s Daily newspaper said on its official microblog that some factories in the south were even discharging their wastewater into underground limestone caves.

An “endemic” problem

This is not the first time concerns have surfaced about contamination of underground water supplies in China. In May 2010, China Comment published a report on the “deadly threat” of underground waste discharge in Xidaying village, Hebei province, home to a large number of printing and dyeing, textile sizing and textile spinning plants.

On the eastern side of these factory buildings in a hidden location the reporters found three crude pits in the ground, all full of dark brown wastewater. No seepage prevention measures had been taken and in one corner was a waste pipe, from which dark brown wastewater gurgled, they said.

Some polluting factories also use high-pressure pumps to discharge huge volumes of their wastewater directly underground, said China Comment.  Meanwhile, data from Chinese environmental NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs suggests that scores of cases of plants dumping their wastewater via seepage pits and seepage wells were investigated in Hebei province over a two year period and, in Liaoning’s Shenyang city, more than 60 factories were dumping their untreated wastewater into natural seepage pits.

China University of Geosciences professor Shen Zhaoli told China Comment: This kind of “deliberate, malicious waste discharge by factories has already become endemic.”