Mar. 23, 2023

Seven Thousand Industrial Parks Contribute to China’s Pollution Problem

Source:  Southern Weekly
Reported by: Feng Jie
October 1, 2011

Pollution: a Deadly Sin

China’s industrial parks are engines of the country’s booming economy, yet they also are major sources of pollution. According to a report released recently by the China Environment Federation, a non-governmental organization administered by the country’s Department for the Environment, these large-scale production areas are directly linked to several recent scandals. Notable among these scandals are Dalian Petrol Industrial Park’s PX project and Xiqiao Industrial Park’s chromium pollution in Luliang County, Yunnan Province.  The Report on the Investigation of Environmental Problems in China’s Industrial Parks (hereafter referred to as “Report”) was produced by the Inspection Litigation Department within the Law Center of the China Environment Federation. The Report finds that more and more legal cases point to industrial parks as major sources of pollution.

To understand conditions in industrial parks, the Inspection Litigation Department of the China Environment Federation conducted an eight-month investigation in 2010 of 18 industrial parks in eight provinces.  The study included two national and seven provincial industrial parks, which are located along major rivers and other important sources of water.  According to the Report, all nine of these industrial parks generate water pollution; 78 percent of them give off air pollution and 17 percent produce solid waste pollution. The Report also states that thirteen industrial parks are suspected of emptying their waste water directly into rivers.

Ma Yong, Minister of the Inspection Litigation Department at the China Environment Federation’s Law Center, explains that the report was motivated by an increasing number of suits against industrial parks. In one case in Xiangshui County, Jiangsu Province, rumors of a toxic gas leak forced thousands of residents to flee their homes. In the chaos several dozen victims were arrested.

The Report identifies serious pollution problems in the industrial parks and makes recommendations for their prevention. It finds that several common factors - or 'deadly sins' - account for the pollution generated by industrial parks.  One example of such a 'sin' is that Chinese law requires an Environmental Impact Assessment of every project before it is constructed, but the process for approving enterprises and ensuring that they meet environmental standards is ineffective. Furthermore, facilities built to mitigate pollution in the parks are not used adequately. Land resources also are wasted. Disputes over environmental standards are frequent, and regulations often are not enforced.  These conditions in the eighteen industrial parks under review suggest general trends in China’s other production areas.

According to incomplete statistics China has 2,000 industrial parks. Two hundred of them are administered at the national level.  Qiao Qi, Director of the Clean Production and Recycling Economic Research Center at China’s Environmental Science Research Institute, maintains that the total number of industrial parks now exceeds 7,000 if one also takes into account areas set aside for industrial production at the county and city levels.

Ma concedes that “many problems occur in the county-level industrial parks. Even though provincial and national industrial parks are administered more strictly, their problems should not be overlooked.” To illustrate his point, Ma points out that Leping Industrial Park, one of Jiangxi Province’s thirty  industrial parks,  was established as  a model of its kind. Yet after seven years in operation, the water treatment plant built to support the area was not yet functioning.  At the time the Report was written, waste water continued to flow directly into Poyang Lake.

“The other industrial parks may be worse,” concludes Qiao, who was one of the authors of China’s Ecological Industrial Park Standards. Qiao has visited many production areas to research and explore them. She feels deceived when she hears managers talk about environmental protection.

Sewage Treatment Plants; Water Throughways

Of the 18 industrial parks investigated, 13 have supporting waste water treatment plants. But these facilities are used only occasionally, and in some cases, never at all.  Clearly they are built primarily for appearances.

The China Environment Federation found that the Environmental Impact Assessment process reveals when laws have been violated and authorities ignored. Industrial projects that need authorization from the national or provincial governments are divided into smaller projects for approval by county governments which use a simplified process. According to the Report, some enterprises treat their approval documents as a form of protection against inspections or as an endorsement to delay the construction of waste water treatment facilities.

Jinshan Industrial Park in Ganyu County, Lianyugang City, Jiangsu Province, is a typical case. The environmental report for one of its enterprises stated that no waste water would result from production; however, on June 22, 2010, the Ganyu County Environment Department fined this enterprise for discharging highly concentrated effluents. 

To pass China’s Environmental Impact Assessment Standards, an industrial park must claim that its pollution prevention measures address 75 percent of its load. Though many enterprises handle far less than 75 percent, no projects seem to be stopped by these regulations. 

Jiangjin Industrial Concentration Zone passed inspection long ago. Yet its water treatment plant was not operational until 2010. The zone simply reached an agreement with the local village committee to designate a  mud flat as a waste water disposal area.

According to regulations, polluting enterprises have a one-year trial period during which pollution prevention facilities are exempted from inspection.  Yet some enterprises continue to operate as they did during this trial period, sometimes for as long as seven or eight years after opening.

Ye Zhengfang, a professor in the Environmental Engineering Department at Peking University, says that some sewage treatment plants have become mere “water throughways.” Effluents produced by industrial parks differ in composition, and the quality and quantity of water varies significantly. Most sewage treatment methods rely on an activated sludge process that involves sedimentation or trickling filtration. Ye explains that “this process lacks the ability to handle complicated chemical sewage.”

Xie Hui, president of Environmental Resources Management, a privately owned and managed consulting firm in China for businesses, industries and governments, finds that “many industrial parks which originally attracted enterprises producing electronics now also draw chemical and heavy metal enterprises.” Some industrial parks discharge their waste water with domestic sewage, which may actually dilute the concentration of heavy metals.

One environmentalist explains why  “water throughways” are able to meet official standards. There are dozens of sewage discharge indexes, but few of them are precisely measured. Only the chemical oxygen demand, or COD, ammonia and nitrogen are measured precisely.  Because conventional processing occurs, “COD alone meets the standard.”

According to Ma, “That is all the country does for environmental protection at present.” Breaking the law costs less than adhering to regulations. As a consequence, many enterprises prefer to pay a fine rather than invest in technologies to dispose of waste water properly. Ma realizes that some enterprises even take the fine into consideration when preparing their annual budget. Some even pay the fine for the whole year in advance.  In effect, they pay a “fine for the right to discharge [waste water] and what was illegal becomes legal.”

Waste water being discharged into the Yangtze River on July 16, 2006

Waste Minimization Club

Xie and Ma agree that the power of the executive is a big handicap. 

While complaining about the failures of enforcement, Ma often persuades victims of pollution not to file law suits. He explains that “a case will drag on for three to five years, and it is likely to end in failure.” What is worse, once the judicial branch intervenes in a case, the executive power stands aside, leaving the victim without support from either the courts or the executive branch. The case finally concludes with mediation. "Working outside the realm of executive power in the name of environmental protection, this process [of mediation] is a search for imperfections and flawed details."

As head of Environmental Resources Management, a consulting firm with a background in foreign investment, Xie works with clients representing the world’s top 500 companies. Few of them are from local governments or industrial parks.  “This is a sensitive issue for us,” Xie explains, “because local governments are responsible for the disposal of wastewater from industrial plants. Yet we cannot interfere in actions taken at that level.” 

Mou Guangfeng, inspector for environmental assessment in the Department of the Environment, confesses that the environment has reached a crisis point and the roots lie in a system that’s flawed. When each part of the system has something wrong with it, one cannot expect the last segment—the plant for treating waste water and the filter for trapping dust—to turn the situation around.

Recently, however, Qiao of the Clean Production and Recycling Economic Research Center at China’s Environmental Science Research Institute visited Taida Industrial Park in Tianjin and was encouraged by a small detail she observed. As one of the first three officially approved ecological industrial parks, Taida Industrial Park has established a “waste minimization club” which turns waste from one company into raw materials for use by another.

Initially, entrepreneurs did not show much interest in the idea, but the director of the park’s management commission visited the club often and convinced entrepreneurs that they were looking at a business opportunity. Thus they established a waste processing network inside the park, and then sold the recycled material abroad.

Denmark’s Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park is a successful model of how industrial by-products and resources can be reused and shared. A few years ago some local power plants and oil refineries there sought to counter the high manufacturing costs caused by water shortages and rising energy prices by developing a waste water–waste gas exchange system. This process was named in 1989.

This kind of activity reflects standard operations in ecological industrial parks. To date China has 54 approved ecological industrial parks, which constitute less than 1 percent of the industrial parks in the country. These “third generation” industrial parks represent the ideal. Their requirements include having “standardized emissions” and causing “no major pollution accidents” or “environmental damage.”

“Shouldn’t these basic requirements apply to any company?” asked a confused Ye Zhengfang.

Qiao, who visited Tianjin, has recently participated in a national project to evaluate risk assessment and technological methods of oversight in industrial parks. The work might help address some of the cruel realities associated with these places, such as deficiencies in assessing environmental risks, conducting research and collecting data.

Qiao reflected that “the best and the worst are both found in China.”

Translated by Cui Yafeng, 'Allen' and Li Jining, 'Laura'
Proofread by: Sandra Chaney
Edited by: Madelyn Finucane

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