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Papering over a Toxic Scandal

Fresh discoveries of illegal toxic waste dumping in the Tengger Desert have drawn renewed public attention to the chronic soil pollution issue haunting underdeveloped western China

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

The polluted sites in the remote Tengger Desert in the northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region were already supposed to have been cleaned up. Yet when environmental activists recently revisited the area, they found pits of black toxic substances that had not been dealt with years after the original discovery had shocked national and local authorities into action.  According to media reports on November 10, 14 pits totaling 120,000 square meters were discovered in the desert close to the city of Zhongwei. The waste had been dumped by papermaking company Ningxia Meili Paper Group that operated in the area from 1998 to 2004. Immediately after the disclosure, China’s Ministry of Environment and Ecology (MEE) launched an investigation and Ningxia authorities announced they would also inspect companies thought to be involved in the pollution.  

In 2014, the severity of the pollution in the Tengger Desert uncovered by domestic media shocked the nation. Companies operating in nearby industrial parks were found to have dumped black waste water into evaporation ponds in the desert. The State Council sent an inspection team and ordered local authorities to investigate. As a result, eight polluting enterprises were required to pay 569 million yuan (US$86m) to restore the contaminated soil and another 6 million yuan (US$852,000) to a public welfare fund for future environmental damage. The startling reality is that the polluted area found recently is merely 10 kilometers away from the toxic waste dumps found in 2014. 

Black Soil 
In October 2019, Zhang Tao from environmental NGO Beijing Fengtai Yuantou Aihaozhe Environment Research Center joined with volunteers from other environmental NGOs to conduct research along the Yellow River. When they arrived in Zhongwei, they turned their attention to the desert near Shapotou National Nature Reserve, noticing spots of black pollution. Volunteer Li Guohua used a shovel to dig at one: “As I tried to dig, one shovel pulled out a pitch-like sticky pollutant,” Li told NewsChina. When he tried to dig deeper with a long stick, he found the sticky substance went down at least one meter. They sent a drone to take an aerial view and found more patches of polluted soil in the nearby desert. On November 7, Zhang published an article online to disclose the pollution in the desert, which immediately attracted media interest, as well as attention from environmental authorities.  

On November 10, Zhongwei government announced the result of its investigation, saying that Ningxia Meili Paper Group had no waste collection system, and that from 1998 to 2004, it had dumped some untreated black waste water directly in the desert.  

The company closed down in February 2015. It, and its polluting habits, have an equally murky background.  

According to former employees interviewed by NewsChina, the firm started in the early 1980s. Founder Liu Chongxin set up Zhongwei Paper Mill in 1980s and changed the name of the company frequently. At the end of the 1990s, according to one senior employee, the company started using tanker trucks to transport black waste water to the edge of the Tengger Desert, which lies 15 kilometers from the paper mill. “One tanker can carry up to 20 to 30 tons of waste water each time,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  

“It’s not easy to see what’s inside those tanker trucks,” another senior former employee told the reporter. “The dump sites are in a remote area, so added to lax environmental regulations and no legal restrictions at the time, it was no big deal for the company to dump pollutants in the desert.” 

Since 2002, in order to cut spending, the company started to plant fast growing trees outside the desert, expecting it could be self-sufficient in papermaking material within a couple of years.  
While paving a road to its new forest, many pits were dug to a depth of four to five meters. Many people said they had witnessed vehicles carrying black liquid which was dumped into the pits. “There were quite a lot of pits, and even now you can tell where they were located as trees won’t grow there,” another former employee of the paper mill told news portal The Paper.  After that, Meili Paper Group was sold or transferred many times. The company’s name changed several times, most recently to Zhongye Paper Group Co. Ltd. 

NewsChina learned that after 2004, the company changed its name four times, and had changed legal representation five times. “This company changes its name so frequently that it is like a Monkey King, and now even the Zhongwei government may not know what’s going on,” a senior employee told our reporter.  

He Jian, Party Secretary of Zhongwei said publicly that there will be a timely investigation and solution. NewsChina saw a couple of excavators on site digging up stinking black sand on November 15.  

Workers wearing masks shoveled the black pollutant into white bags, tied them up and piled them up nearby. NewsChina learned that by the end of November, Zhongwei government and the company which caused the pollution had removed 129,264 tons of pollutants from 11 of the 14 new sites discovered.  

Song Lei from Beijing Bosen Lixin Environment Technology Co. Ltd, which is involved as a third party to rehabilitate the damaged sites, told our reporter that samples collected from the polluted soil had been sent for scientific examination.  

“When we get the results, we can provide a few technical options for the cleanup and then, with other expert input, decide which is the best solution,” Song said. “If it’s non-hazardous industrial waste, we will transport it to a proper landfill, but if it is hazardous, we’ll need further evaluation.”

Chronic Dilemma
Apart from the Tengger Desert pollution disclosed in 2014, in 2018, when the MEE again conducted inspections in Ningxia, they still uncovered many instances of local enterprises illegally discharging waste water.  

The problem is widespread in parts of China. It is all due to a lack of effective supervision, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE). It is widespread in China, since enterprises face little cost for committing environmental damage. “This means enterprises will choose to lower their environmental standards in pursuit of more profits,” Ma told NewsChina. In most cases, these enterprises are the major tax providers for local economies and thus are afforded preferable treatment by local governments. It is impossible for local environmental agencies to impose strict regulations when they face pressure from other local government authorities.  

Chang Jiwen, director of the Research Institute for Resources and Environment Policies, said that the Development Research Center of the State Council has conducted field research in Zhongwei several times. Chang told NewsChina that the punishment under the law for such pollution used to be a one-time fine of 100,000 yuan (US$14,200). If the polluting incident causes severe damage, 20 percent of the loss caused by the pollution, up to a maximum 30 percent, would be shouldered by the polluters.  

“Looking back, the punishment was too light,” Chang said. “Although the pollution was a legacy of the past, the effect remains, so the punishment should follow the present legal system. Those responsible for the past pollution should be investigated to see if they bear civil responsibility or even criminal liability if needed.” 

According to Chang, the companies involved should take responsibility for ecological rehabilitation and environmental damage compensation. If the company has gone bankrupt, the new entity should also be held responsible.  

“Additionally, China’s Criminal Law adopted in 1997 stipulates clearly that people who committed environmental crimes in the past are still on the hook. According to the judicial interpretation, the illegal dumping of more than three tons of hazardous waste is considered criminal behavior,” Chang said.  

He stressed the lessons learned from the episode in Ningxia show that in addition to stronger laws, local governments should be careful when they tout for investment. If companies prioritize profit over taking care of pollution, the fallout will eventually come down hard on local authorities.  

During recent years, due to tightening environmental regulations in China’s eastern region, the chemical industry has moved west. Zhongwei Industrial Park was set up to target papermaking, packaging, printing and the coal chemical industry. In 2018, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a revised Industry Development and Transfer Guideline, which listed the chemical industry as major development area for provinces in Western China.  

But moving the chemical industry also transferred risk to environmentally fragile regions. Li Qinglu, a retired lecturer from Shenyang University of Chemical Technology has visited the Tengger Desert to investigate its ecological situation.  

Li told NewsChina that as an arid region, the costs of any pollution cleanup there will be much higher than elsewhere.  

NewsChina learned from industry insiders that the chemical industry is unable to be developed at a large scale in Ningxia or the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region due to the scarcity of water. The high cost of installing proper equipment to safeguard the environment means smaller enterprises struggle to turn a profit.  

As heavy industry moved from the east coast of China to the interior, chemical industrial parks have become pollution hotspots.  

In the opinion of Ding Yanlin, director of the Environment Law and Policy Research Center at Northwest University of Political Science and Law, the problem stems directly from the migration west of polluting industries that have found it difficult to continue operating in the wealthier and more developed east.  

“Due to tightened supervision and increasing production costs, these companies continue to relocate to unpopulated places in central and western China. This recent pollution in the Tengger Desert is a microcosm of the problem of pollution transfer. Local governments in central and western China must strictly guard against environmental pollution and avoid the old pattern of putting development before environmental governance.” 

In 2017, the MEE conducted inspections of more than 60,000 enterprises. According to industry insiders, if they all installed highly effective pollution treatment facilities, most could not make any profit.  

In reality, strict regulation and supervision against pollution can result in the dwindling of the local economy. In July 2015, Linyi in eastern Shandong Province was warned by the MEE over its uncontained heavy industry, and subsequently rolled out tough measures to control air pollution. Fifty-seven companies were forced to close, resulting in 60,000 workers being laid off. The result of companies being denied environmental approval plunged the local economy into a debt crisis.  

Bags of polluted soil are removed from Meili Forest in the city of Zhongwei in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, November 13, 2019

Polluter Doesn’t Pay 
The law is struggling to catch up with the nature of environmental pollution, especially as it can remain hidden for a long time, and the effects are also long-lasting. There are calls from academia to set up a “lifelong liability” system to punish polluters, and to categorize environmental protection into the official evaluation system of local government performance. Back in 2014, after the exposure of the Tengger Desert pollution case, 24 officials from all levels in Inner Mongolia were held accountable for the pollution.  

Cleaning up soil pollution may run into the tens of millions of dollars. Even if the polluters are slapped with heavy fines, it falls far short of what is needed. The law says that the polluting company should bear full responsibility for compensation and ecological rehabilitation, but in reality, as there is no body to assess claims, the “polluter pays” principle does not work. It is the government who pays the cost instead.  

According to official data, by October 2018, among the officially announced total of 174 areas of polluted land across China, only 20 percent had been effectively rehabilitated. Most of the costs were shared between local governments and real estate developers who wanted to use the land, while only a limited number of cases were paid for by the original polluters. Song Guojun, director of the Institute of Environmental Policy, Renmin University of China told NewsChina that “government pays” means “taxpayers pay.”  

“But it should be the ‘polluter pays’ principle that is the steadfast rule,” Song said.