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Let us end soil pollution cases harming villagers

Updated: 2014-12-20 08:09
By Li Yang (China Daily)

There were turning points in the environmental protection histories of many developed countries in the last century. Serious pollution incidents awakened the public to environmental threats and forced governments to enact laws and set up powerful organs to protect the environment.

The case with China is different. Before reaching the turning point, it already has environmental laws and largely ineffective environmental protection law-enforcement departments.

Despite the laws, the cadmium pollution case in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in South China has all the elements of a major environmental disaster.

Yet, were it not for the media's exposure, the case would have been forgotten after the Stated-owned company operating the lead-zinc mine at Sanhe village in Guangxi's Daxin county declared bankruptcy - and the deaths and suffering of hundreds of villagers would have gone unnoticed.

From the mid-1950s to 2001, the company extracted lead and zinc from the mine and dumped the wastewater and other toxic residues, including cadmium, into a pool. The wastewater and tailings seeped into Sanhe's irrigation canals and, through them to farmlands on which some 500 farmers' families depended.

The water and soil contamination has extracted a heavy price from the villagers, leaving many with distorted joints and brittle bones, and endless pain, leading in many cases to early death.

The Guangxi environmental geology institute data for 2000 showed the cadmium content in irrigation water and soil was about 10 times and 50 times higher than the safety standards - and10 times higher in food grains. A Guangxi occupational disease prevention and control center survey in 2001 showed that cadmium contents in almost all 46 samples of villagers' blood and urine were way above the danger levels.

The mining company got away by paying a small compensation to the villagers. And the government paid them 120 kilogram of rice per person per year and some money for not cultivating their contaminated fields. But most villagers, mostly left-behind aged farmers, continued to irrigate the polluted fields with the toxic water from the mine's waste pool.

When questioned by the media, Daxin county officials said this is a historical issue, and the people in charge of the environmental and public health departments have been replaced many times, indicating that no one is in a position to resolve the issue.

The central government has allocated special funds for the treatment of the waste pool but the county government is still planning how to go about the environmental regeneration project. The Guangxi autonomous regional government, on its part, has said that all the villagers would be shifted to a place which is free of heavy metal pollution. But experts say heavy metal poisoning has already done more than enough harm to the villagers.

The Sanhe case shows pollution victims still don't have legal channels for redressal of their grievances, and local governments generally side with the polluters.

Public pressure stirred by the media and higher authorities' strict directions are the only ways to make local governments act.

People in general feel the environment has degraded. And leaders at the just-concluded Central Economic Work Conference admitted that China's environmental capacity has almost reached its limit.

So, the central authorities have to create functional legal channels and arm the people with laws to defend their interests, make the environmental protection departments an autonomous and powerful system free of government interference, sharply raise the fines for polluters, and establish a permanent accountability system for government officials whose decisions can affect the environment. After all, protecting the environment is for the benefit of the people and the country both.

The author is a writer with China Daily.


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