Thu, Apr 04, 2013 - Page 9 News List

China’s losing battle against state-backed polluters

Many state-owned mining firms, some of China’s worst polluters, were carved out of government mining bureaus and still enjoy a cozy relationship with local governments, making it difficult for the central government to improve environmental standards

By David Stanway  /  Reuters, SHANGHANG COUNTY, China

The company has spent 80 million yuan (US$12.9 million) rehabilitating and landscaping parts of the old mine, and has built a “national mining park,” opened late last year. Reuters was not given permission to see the park during a visit, but Zijin said it also set up a botanical garden and a golf course.

Zijin has also contributed 114 million yuan to a local water project and donated to flood relief in Fujian, but it is its overall contribution to the local economy that demonstrates how indispensable it has become to the government.

The rugged, mountainous county of Shanghang is undergoing a transformation, largely on the back of the high commodity prices that have driven up Zijin Mining’s profits and boosted tax revenues. Huge cranes bow over the horizon, and new concrete blocks dominate the skyline. Immaculate high-speed roads connect Shanghang to the rest of Chinese-controlled Fujian Province and Zijin says it has invested billions of yuan in local business start-ups, creating thousands of new jobs.

Shen said a local official’s prospects tend to depend on short-term achievements, including bursts of spectacular growth or a big infrastructure project, while long-term problems like pollution tend to be ignored.

While the overriding focus remains on economic growth, local officials are marked down if they fail to improve the environment, but they have tended to try to have it both ways, encouraging big companies like Zijin to spend heavily on high-profile environmental projects, such as parks and land reclamation, without risking disruption to economic activity.

“Local cities and government officials have been able to channel more investment money toward environmental infrastructure,” Wang said. “But we’ve not seen any significant improvements in basic bread-and-butter environmental regulation — the business of monitoring facilities and making sure they comply with pollution standards.”

NO AWAKENING

Zijin has had no major incident since 2010, and has worked to regain public trust, though local residents remain wary.

“The river — we wouldn’t drink from that because there is pollution and you have to go to higher ground,” said one elderly resident at a convenience store near the foot of Zijin Mountain who would only give his surname, Lin.

“We heard rumors of more pollution recently,” he added. “We don’t know what goes into the water — they don’t tell us, so it’s safer not to drink it.”

In December last year, Zijin was forced to deny rumors of another pollution crisis, admitting that cracks in one of its pits had allowed a small amount of slurry to enter an emergency reservoir. However, the company is still allowed to pollute with relative impunity, mainly because it is under no pressure from Beijing to disclose what it is discharging.

Less than a year after the Fujian spill, Zijin was lobbying for more lenient treatment during talks with the government on proposed amendments to China’s environmental laws, people attending those meetings said.

“There was no sign of any environmental awakening — they were up to their old tricks, lobbying for looser standards,” a non-governmental organization representative said.

In remote and impoverished Guizhou Province, another broken tailings dam at Zijin’s Shuiyin gold mine in Zhenfeng in 2006 sent about 200,000m3 of waste into two downstream reservoirs. Six years later, residents said one of the reservoirs remained out of bounds.

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