Newly industrialized cities battle pollution
ZHUZHOU, Hunan Province: Decades ago, when he was still a boy, Peng Hualin was surrounded by plots of rice fields. The only signal of urban identity of the future bustling industrial city was a small market.
Age has left the 95-year-old Peng humpbacked, trembling and wrinkled. Rice fields of the past have been replaced by chemical factories, sky-rising chimneys, hills of wastes and ponds of pollutants.
Living steps away from an emission canal mouth linking to the Xiangjiang River, Peng's point of view on industrialization and urban sprawl is clear.
The offspring of his 11 sons and daughters quit farming to become workers, earning more.
"I'm a happy man," said Peng, but looking at the smoggy sky, he added, "The biggest regret is what we breathe in every day is smog, instead of clean air."
Peng is not exaggerating.
Taxi drivers are not willing to drive passengers to the industrial zone in Zhuzhou's northern part, where a cluster of more than 200 paper-making, glass-production, melting and even pesticide factories exist.
Along Jianshe Beilu, ill-smelling particles from the pesticide factory force walkers to scurry away. Drivers hurriedly roll up car windows.
But blocks of residential buildings still sit near factories and the residents, like Peng, have been inhaling the polluted air for years.
"Some residents have moved out of the region, but for those poor and laid-off worker families, they have no choice but suffer," said a driver surnamed Xu, who has been laid off from a local steel factory.
Theoretically, an industrial zone should be located downstream of a river. But, for management convenience, nearly all factories in Zhuzhou have constructed their residential buildings near their plants.
Now it is apparently suffering from the layout, as drinking water resources are threatened besides air pollution.
And the list of hazards does not stop there.
Linked by the Xiangjiang River, Peng's city, Xiangtan, and the provincial capital Changsha have formed an urban cluster.
"About 10 million residents in the cluster have been threatened by industrial discharge which flow into the river," said Jiang Yimin, head of the provincial environmental department.
The pollution has grown worse since the 1980s and, several years ago, the major industrial hazard in the waste water was mercury, a silvery-white poisonous metallic element. It was used in thermometers, barometers, vapour lamps, batteries and in the preparation of chemical pesticides.
"The level of mercury has met the national standards in the river after increased efforts but cadmium has become another hazard," said Jiang.
Cadmium is an industrial chemical that can cause neurological disorders and cancer.
Just about 40 kilometres away from Zhuzhou, one of the top-10 worst polluted cities in China, Xiangtan has been the recipient of massive industrial emissions.
Qu Lili, deputy head of environmental bureau in the downstream Xiangtan city, urged quicker measures to stop cross-boundary river pollution.
She said more than 80 per cent of pollution in Xiangtan section of Xiangjiang River came from the upper-industrial city Zhuzhou, which is famous for its chemical industries.
In the latest case on January 4, cadmium flooded into the Zhuzhou part of Xiangjiang River during a silt-cleaning project started that day without official approval.
Zhuzhou Water Conservancy Investment Co Ltd formed a silt-clearing dam near the mouth of a waste drainage pipe from Zhuzhou Smeltery on Wednesday.
The water then flowed into two lakes, which contained high levels of cadmium waste from nearby plants, causing them to overflow into the Xiangjiang River.
The pollution put the governments of Zhuzhou, Xiangtan and Changsha on alert to prevent contamination of drinking water.
Local authorities are neutralizing the spill with different chemicals and diluting it by releasing water from upstream reservoirs. And meanwhile, the government has ordered production suspension among all the chemical factories, which release cadmium along two sides of the river.
The cadmium level of the polluted water entering into the river peaked at 80 times the safe standards several days ago.
Although the level of pollution has been brought down, data shows that cadmium level in Xiangtan's drinking water resources has still surpassed national safety standards sometimes, after nearly one-week of anti-pollution efforts, said Qu.
"But pollution now is not as serious as several days ago," Qu said.
The development was a reverse after Jiang Yimin concluded on Monday that health hazards only existed in a small section of river
Qu ruled out the media's report that cadmium level of tap water in her city had surpassed national standards two days after spill.
"It's true that our water resources have been polluted but our tap water has been supplied in good quality because of emergency chemical treatment," said Qu.
"But we need to be alerted in case new pollution happens and the cadmium level rise."
By press time, contaminated water from a congregation of chemical factories in Zhuzhou still flowed into Xiangjiang River and Jiang said "it's true."
"But the hazard level has been decreasing dramatically," said Jiang.
The pollution caused no panic amongst the public.
Despite the metal level in the downstream stretch being above national standards, fish in the county was not banned from dinner tables.
"You cannot eat ducks and geese because of bird flu," said a waitress surnamed Wang in a restaurant in Zhuzhou. "But we still supply fish."
(China Daily 01/14/2006 page3)
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