HONG KONG - While BP, responsible for the largest oil spill in history, has
been pilloried all summer for its carelessness in the Gulf of Mexico,
environmental disasters in China keep adding up - but no one will step up and
take the blame. Indeed, the Chinese leadership may owe BP a letter of thanks:
The five million barrels of oil that have despoiled the gulf since the
company's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April served to divert world
attention from the ongoing environmental troubles in China.
China was meant to get serious about saving the environment two years ago when
the central government scrapped the small and impotent State Environmental
Protection Agency and replaced it
with a ministerial office that was reported to have some real teeth.
Moreover, even before the inception of the Ministry of Environmental
Protection, Beijing sent out the stern word to local officials, whose previous
evaluations for promotions had been based entirely on their booming regional
economies, that their efforts at environmental protection would also be taken
Now, however, the once-promising new ministry's latest report - which no doubt
under represents the story - paints a damning picture, and several
environmental accidents last month provide further evidence that local
officials continue to get away with ecological murder in their quest for
Here's the bad news - or at least that to which the ministry is willing to own
up: In the first six months of this year, environmental accidents have
increased by 98%, from 171 for the whole of 2009 to about 102 accidents in the
first half of this year. Nearly a quarter of the country's surface water is now
so polluted that it cannot be used even for industrial purposes, and only 49.3%
of that water is drinkable - although that represents an improvement, according
to the ministry, of 1.3% over last year.
Over the past five years, while official rhetoric on cleaning up the
environment has soared and new and tougher regulations have multiplied,
ministry studies nevertheless show that air pollution has worsened.
Meanwhile, local officials ignore the heightened rhetoric emanating from
Beijing and scoff at the new laws because they still believe that the bottom
line - ever-increasing growth - has not changed.
However, Bloomberg in a report dated August 9 said that "China is lagging
behind a target for reducing the amount of energy used relative to gross
domestic product, with only months to run in Premier Wen Jiabao's five-year
plan". As a result, the report adds, the determination of policymakers "to meet
the goal may be tested by the need for 'sacrificing' growth in an economy that
is already cooling, according to UBS AG economist Wang Tao".
Nevertheless, disasters will surely continue and even the incomplete, suspect
reports we hear about are alarming enough. For example, after 3,000 barrels of
toxic chemicals were spilt into the Songhua River in northeastern Jilin
province on July 28, local officials, backed up by state media, immediately
offered public assurances that everything was just fine. But surely the more
than 27 million people of Jilin quailed at these blithe guarantees. After all,
this is the second time in five years that life-threatening chemicals have
found their way into the Songhua.
In 2005, an accident at a chemical plant, initially covered up by local
authorities, poured enough of the carcinogenic chemical benzene into the
Songhua to suspend water supplies to Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang
province, located north of Jilin, and raise diplomatic hackles in the Kremlin
as Russian cities further north worried about the threat to their water.
This time flooding - another perennial curse for which the country is ill
prepared - was responsible for sweeping 7,000 barrels stored at a chemical
plant into the river; 3,000 of those barrels contained the highly toxic and
flammable chemical chlorotrimethylsilane, which can burn the skin and lungs.
According to the official Xinhua News Agency, most of the barrels have been
retrieved and tests show that the Songhua's water has not been contaminated by
the spill. Still, the fear - even the likelihood - that this could happen again
remains. Next time, officials might not be so lucky.
Two days after the Jilin spill, the Environment Ministry announced that floods
in the eastern city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, had washed 1,500 drums
of resin, oil, fertilizer and waste into the Yangtze River. Again, official
assurances followed that the spill had been contained and the waters of the
Yangtze were not affected.
Meanwhile, the clean-up in the Yellow Sea continues after two pipelines
exploded at an oil storage depot on July 16 in the northeastern port city of
Dalian. Local authorities claimed to have staunched the leak within 24 hours,
and state media reported that the spill had been limited to 1,500 tons of
crude, which would be less than 0.5% of the BP spill in the gulf. But the army
of volunteers involved in the clean-up effort and the 430-square-kilometer oil
slick that has spread over the Yellow Sea suggest otherwise.
The environmental group Greenpeace released a statement saying the spill could
be as much as 60 times the official figure. If that is even close to accurate,
the ecological damage will be severe.
No catalogue of last month's environmental nightmare in China would be complete
without including the contamination of the Tingjiang River in southeastern
Fujian province by one of the country's largest gold producers. Waste from a
copper and gold mine operated by Zijin Mining Group killed 1.89 million
kilograms of fish in the river; in the end, the desperate county government
handed out nets to soldiers, civil servants and villagers to clear the
Tingjiang of all the dead fish.
Zijin has promised to compensate villagers for this devastating blow to the
local fishing industry, but the compensation package, as reported by Xinhua,
will make BP executives - facing billions of dollars in lawsuits for its spill
in the gulf - green with envy.
Zijin, a US$13 billion company, will pay fisherman three yuan (about $0.50) for
every kilogram of poisoned fish. That adds up to a grand total of less that $1
million - hardly the kind of penalty that will shock the company into a
newfound respect for the environment. Even when you tack on the bribes of
between $300 and $700 that the company allegedly dished out to a horde of
journalists to hush up the story, the financial blow to Zijin is still very
Most appallingly, the tragedy in Fujian was entirely avoidable. As it turns
out, the Zijinshan mine was discharging untreated wastewater from its copper
refinery directly into the river. And this revelation comes after Zijin
announced in May that the company had taken "corrective measures" at Zijinshan,
among other mines and plants, to comply with environmental protection laws.
Although the mine has been shut down, the damage has already been done and the
affected villagers can only shake their heads and wonder how, without at least
an implicit nod from local authorities, something like this could happen. After
all, the Zijinshan mine accounted for 59% of Zijin's bullion output and was
China's largest gold producer. Helping to increase its profits could certainly
give a boost to any local cadre's climb up the promotional ladder.
Finally, just ask one of China's most prominent eco-pioneers, Wu Lihong, about
his country's continuing onslaught against Mother Nature. Wu has been fighting
for years to save Tai Lake, in eastern Jiangsu province, from the thousands of
polluting factories that operate around its shores. First, officials tried
bribery to shut him up. When that didn't work, jail and torture followed.
Meanwhile, since 2006, his hometown of Yixing, located on the Tai's
northwestern shore, has been recognized as one of China's "environmental model
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at