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Debate: Disasters

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
August 9, 2010
China Daily


A series of environmental disasters have hit Chinese recently. The Zijin mining company is under fire for toxic leaks into the Tingjiang River from its copper plant in Shanghang, Fujian province. Off the Dalian coast in Liaoning province, China National Petroleum Corporation (PetroChina is its listed arm) is scrambling to clean up an oil spill, caused by an explosion in its pipeline. In both cases, marine life is at risk, and the full economic costs have yet to be ascertained. While the cause of, and culpability for, the PetroChina pipeline explosion is unclear, there is no such doubt in the Zijin case.

Government officials have found Zijin was illegally discharging wastewater into the river, and detained some company officials. Earlier reports suggested Zijin might have to pay penalties and compensation of at least 5 million yuan ($738,000).

The real tragedy of the Zijin case is that it is far from unique. Dumping of wastewater illegally by factories is a common practice in China. The health of local communities and the livelihood of farmers and fishermen are under constant threat from companies that take environmental shortcuts.

According to Minister of Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian, about 25 percent of China's drinking water sources pose a threat to people's health. Last year, a report by China Geological Survey, affiliated to the Ministry of Land and Resources, said 90 percent of the country's groundwater was polluted. China can ill afford to pollute its water, because two-thirds of Chinese cities face water shortages, and the groundwater levels in the country's coastal region are dropping by the year, causing land to sink, roads to crack and villages to relocate.

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