China battles chemical pollution along Yangtze

China’s local authorities are striving to curb the chemical pollution plaguing the Yangtze River, as the environment of the country’s longest river has become one of the central government’s top concerns. A national plan to boost the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, published last month, firmly places environmental protection and restoration as a paramount task. Chinese President Xi Jinping made similar remarks in January, pledging that there would be no large-scale development along the river in the near future or for a long period going forward. The middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze are home to more than 400,000 chemical enterprises, accounting for nearly half of the country’s total as factories prefer riverside locations for easy access to water and convenient transportation. As a result, a 600-km-long pollution belt containing over 300 hazardous pollutants has formed along the river. A 2009 report published by a research group led by hydrologist Wang Zhaoyin found that many creatures in the Yangtze had high levels of heavy metals such as copper, zinc and iron in their bodies. In September, a spokesperson for the leading group of the Yangtze River Economic Belt development told Xinhua that efforts would be made to cut overcapacity in the chemical industry. The local governments on the middle and lower reaches of the river have taken action in recent years, cracking down on illegal discharge of pollutants and closing heavy polluters. In June, the local environmental watchdog in central China’s Hubei Province heavily fined Chuyuan Group, a leading domestic dye manufacturer, and one of its subsidiary companies, more than 27 million yuan (about 4 million U.S. dollars) for discharging excessive pollutants and setting up private discharge channels. The fine was the largest ever handed down by Hubei environmental authorities. The implicated companies underwent an overhaul and several managers were detained. Since 2015, more than 150 heavily polluting companies have been shut down and hundreds of environmental damage cases investigated in Hubei, according to the provincial environmental protection department. In neighbouring Hunan Province, 1,182 heavily polluting companies were closed along the Xiangjiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze, from 2011 to 2015. During the same period, Jiangsu Province, located on the lower reaches of the Yangtze, shut down about 7,000 chemical companies. To secure themselves in the future, some companies have poured funds into waste treatment facilities and moved toward recyclable products. Liu Xuedong, environmental protection executive of the Wuhan branch of China Petrochemical Corporation, said the company invested more than 500 million yuan to mitigate the environmental impact of its oil refining business from 2011 to 2015. During the period, its refining capacity doubled, but the amount of pollution emissions have markedly reduced, Liu said. In an industrial park in Hubei’s Yichang City, a factory of Hubei Xingfa Chemicals Group, a phosphorus maker, now reuses 95 percent of its solid waste, waste water, gas and heat. For example, the by-product chlorine can be used to produce water-treatment agent and fire retardant. Despite the progress, pollution control is no easy task. Investigations by Xinhua found secret pollution discharges in several chemical industry parks along the Yangtze in Jiangxi, Hunan and Guizhou provinces, indicating current law enforcement is not tough enough. In addition, closures or relocation of polluting factories require huge funds to handle the aftermath. For example, polluters stop offering nearby villagers compensation for environmental damage after they are shut down or moved, said Shen Yuming, deputy head of the development and reform commission of Xiangtan City, where 28 chemical companies were closed in 2013. What is more, the locations of factories are often selfish choices. They usually stand downstream of their own cities and close to sites where water diverges to other cities downstream. Qiu Shengguang, an official with the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau, told Xinhua that between 2011 and 2015 there were three major water pollution incidents in the Yangtze every year. Qin Zunwen, deputy head of Hubei’s academy of social sciences, said the government should control capacity based on demand and reasonably lay out the chemical industry, establishing a “negative list” to ban certain businesses from the river basin. Proposing that the State Council set up cross-regional coordination of environmental protection in the river basin, Qin said all sections of the river should share environmental data and that upstream construction projects should be agreed by downstream neighbours. In 2014, China decided to make developing the Yangtze River Economic Belt a national strategy. It is hoped the move will develop riverside regions and provide new growth stimulus to the slowing economy. The belt, one of the busiest rivers for freight worldwide, covers nine provinces and two municipalities that cover about a fifth of China’s land, and accommodate a population of 600 million, generating more than 40 percent of the country’s GDP. China aims to markedly improve the environment of the belt by 2020, with over 75 percent of the region’s water meeting Grade III standard or above, with forest coverage to reach 43 percent. The country classifies water quality into six levels, from level I, which is suitable for drinking after minimal treatment, to level VI, which is severely contaminated.

Xinhua Insight, 10 October 2016 ; ;