Mar. 23, 2023

BYD’s Controversial New-energy Battery Plant

Source: Caijing
November 20, 2011
Reported by: Mo Li, Gao Shengke

Edited by: Yan Qi

BYD Limited (hereafter referred to as BYD) proposed to construct “the world largest new-energy battery factory” on a lot labeled G02113-0032 in Longgang District, Shenzhen.  

This project sparked serious debate in the neighborhood, since the construction site is about 100 meters away from surrounding residential areas and is close to Shenzhen’s three water sources (Tongluojing reservoir, Bingkeng reservoir, and Sanzhoutian reservoir). Moreover, planning for the plant’s construction preceded the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was passed in less than seven days.

Due to public opinion and pressure, BYD announced on Nov. 14 that the company will propose major changes to the project and recompile the EIS. However, in light of previous irregularities in the approval process, some issues, such as the reasonability of the new EIS and the controversy over how to define the “pollution” generated by the plant, were open to discussion by government, enterprises, and the general public.

The Sudden Arrival of a Battery Factory

In mid 2009, new homeowners in Zhenyeluan Valley, the largest residential area in Nanyue Community (located in Longgang District, Shenzhen), had just moved into their new houses. They were not happy in their new homes for long, though, because they were constantly awakened in the middle of the night by pungent odors which caused chest tightness, dizziness, nausea, and the feeling of asphyxia.

The homeowners quickly found out that the odor came from BYD’s painting workshop, which was just one kilometer away from their community.

The residents complained about and protested this, but things got worse before they got better. The vacant lot labeled G02113-003, only 100 meters away from their residential area, was purchased by BYD. Its wholly-owned subsidiary, BYD Lithium Battery Limited, proposed to construct the “world largest new-energy battery plant” on the lot and was poised to begin construction.

The full name of the project was ‘BYD’s New-energy Material Base,’ and it was identified as one of Shenzhen’s most important projects in 2011. According to the EIS, it was not a new construction but a project to renovate and expand on the first phase of BYD Lithium Battery Limited. Once completed, the base will have 19 fabrication factories, a transformer substation, a sewage treatment plant, an office building for research and development, and other auxiliary buildings, covering an area of 500,000 square meters in total.

Homeowners in Zhenyeluan Valley believed that this plant was located upstream of Shenzhen’s water supply system. It was 860 meters, 460 meters and 2,100 meters away from the Tongluojing reservoir, Bingkeng reservoir and Sanzhoutian reservoir, respectively. Each of these three reservoirs is part of the Eastern Water Supply Project — the water supply for Shenzen and Hong Kong.

However, BYD did not think that the new base was constructed in a ‘protected drinking water zone.’ According to the delineated protection zones for domestic and drinking water in Shenzhen, the water protection zones of Bingkeng reservoir and Tongluojing reservoir were near the construction site, but it is clear that the construction site was located outside the watershed lines of the protection zones. Therefore, it was not within either protected zone.

But the fact that the construction site was close to the water sources worried nearby residents. Homeowners in Zhenyeluan Valley compiled a report entitled, “The Assessment of Chemicals and Pollutants Released by BYD’s Large-scale Battery Plant” using information and resources from the Internet. This report predicted that after its construction finished, the plant might produce benzaldehyde organic solvents, hydrochloric acid, lithium hexafluorophosphate, electrolyte and 21 other kinds of harmful pollutants, resulting in toxic carcinogenics; corrosive and contaminated soil, water and air; and other harmful chemicals.

When interviewing with Caijing Magazine, Cao Guoqing, Deputy Secretary-General of the China Battery Industry Association, pointed out that compared with lead batteries and mercury batteries, lithium batteries can be regarded as pollution-free. Pollution generally comes from heavy metals, such as lead, chromium and mercury, but lithium battery does not contain these heavy metals.

In addition, the water waste from battery production usually needs to go through recycling and proper disposal to reduce the pungent odors. In BYD’s case, a sewage treatment plant was also included to help recycle water.

Nevertheless, Huo Xia, the director of the cytology laboratory at Shantou University’s Medical School, took the position that all battery plants involving chemicals will pose hazards to humans and the environment. Yet the key is to examine how best to deal with a plant’s pollution.

Environmental Impact Assessment finished in four days.

A representative homeowner from the Zhenyeluan Valley community told Caijing Magazine that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the BYD project was completed in only three days, and this contradicts conventional procedures.

Feng Yongfeng, founder of the environmental group Green Beagle, explained to us the conventional EIA procedures. First, the applicant should submit the proper documents to the relevant department of environmental administration. After the documents have been accepted, the applicant should entrust a qualified institution to draft the EIS, or Environmental Impact Statement. Writing this letter should take one week. The relevant department of environmental administration should then inspect the report and issue an official written response.

During the application process, it is crucial to hold hearings and to solicit public comment.

What follows is a review of the approval process for the BYD project: after the documents were accepted by the relevant department of environmental administration, BYD entrusted the South China Institute of Environmental Sciences to draft the Environmental Impact Statement in April 2011. On June 3, Shenzhen Living Environment Net announced the beginning of the EIA, an announcement that was followed by an expert group review of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Five days later, the revised statement was reviewed and altered again by the leader of the expert group and the Shenzhen Living Environment Examination Center. On June 10, the EIA was approved.

From June 3 to 10, it took BYD seven days to get its Environmental Impact Statement approved. Yet since June 4 to 6 was the Dragon Boat Holiday, the whole approval process lasted only four days. “It is unusual to approve a project in four days,” said Feng Yongfeng, who founded the Green Beagle. 

There is no information publically available yet as to who assessed the project and who issued the report. In response to homeowners in Zhenyeluan Valley, the South China Institute of Environmental Sciences only offered the simplified version of the statement. No one provided this magazine with the original statement, either.

Article 12 of the Interim Measures for Public Participation in the Environmental Impact Assessment states that: “a construction company or its entrusted EIA institute must invite public comment for at least 10 days.” During this process, all relevant information should be open to the public

Zeng Xiangbin, a partner at the Wuhan office of Bejing Yingke Law Firm, informed us that according to Chinese law governing EIAs and the regulations issued by the relevant environmental department, all industries – heavy and light polluters alike – are subject to EIA, but there is no specific time requirement. In other words, the law is not very complete, and the assessment time for each project is not always the same. However, one thing is certain: the relevant information of each project has to be open for public comment.

As for the BYD project, since the whole EIA process is not transparent and much information is not available, it is hard to say whether the assessment is reasonable or not.

The company manipulated the poll.

The public comment period for the Environmental Impact Statement was from May 26, 2011 to June 9, 2011. The abridged edition of the report with 135 questionnaires concluded that 83.7% of respondents supported the program, 16.3% of respondents had no particular feelings about it and no respondents opposed the program. Every organization surveyed was reportedly in favor of the program.

However, the homeowners’ committee of Zhenyeluan Valley all objected to the program, and now the authenticity of the questionnaires – and the Environmental Impact Statement itself – is in doubt.

One representative of the homeowners’ committee of Zhenyeluan Valley said that “except for BYD employees in this community, none of us were asked for our opinions. Nobody is willing to live in a dangerous environment.”

Many homeowners said that they never saw the questionnaires and did not know how the results came about. They have asked the South China Institute of Environmental Sciences for the original questionnaire. But the institute denied their request in the name of confidentiality.

An official at the South China Institute of Environmental Science explained that the 135 questionnaires were collected by BYD. Though the institute wrote the EIS, the South China Institute of Environmental Science was not involved in the survey.

In this regard, a lawyer specializing in environmental issues and public relations from the All-China Environment Foundation claimed that the company conducting the survey itself was suspected of involvement in illegal activities and thus the impartiality and validity of the questionnaires are questionable.

Hard to Define the Land Category

The two sides are also arguing over another point. Zhenyeluan Valley residents think that battery-manufacturing enterprises should be built on industrial land designated M3. They doubt that BYD changed the designation of the land, which was originally categorized as M1. Most media reports agree with this point.

Industrial land in China is divided into three categories. The first class, M1, refers to land for industries with no pollution or impact on the environment and public infrastructures. Examples of industries operating on land in class M1 are electronics and handicraft manufacture. The second class, M2, refers to lands for those industries which may disturb people’s living and pollute the environment to a certain degree such as food and medical industries. The third class, M3, refers to land available to industries that seriously disturb the environment or public infrastructure, industries including mining, metallurgy, and chemical industries.

It clearly shows on the website of the Shenzhen Bureau of Lands and Resources that the land “G02113-003” is categorized as M1.

BYD obtained the land “G02113-0032” from the Bureau of Trade and Industry in Shenzhen’s Longgang district through an auction. The “Industrial Land Development Agreement of Shenzhen” (No. 7, 2010) from the Longgang Estate Development Association shows that this land has been designated by the government as an industrial area devoted to new-energy projects.

The Shenzhen Planning and Land Resources Committee “approved” the above land usage in September 25, 2010.

The Shenzhen Residence Committee is an EIA approval agency. One of their executives expressed that land category is assigned by the Shenzhen Planning and Land Resources Committee. The new-energy battery project has long been categorized as M1 while ordinary battery manufacture is designated M3. The same executive from the Shenzhen Residence Committee pointed out that the new-energy industry is new and not yet well-defined.

Wang Jingzhong, Executive Vice President of the China Battery Industry Association thinks that land for lithium battery plants should be categorized as M1 or M2, but not M3. The reason is that lithium batteries are a form of new-energy, and their production is possible with no pollution. Compared with foreign countries, Chinese battery manufacturing enterprises are environmentally friendly, planned and managed in the same way as the of food industry.

What is BYD’s new-energy battery? In an interview Dong Liangjie, the battery expert and former environmental expert from the University of Hawaii, pointed out that it was actually a battery with lithium, iron and phosphate. Cobalt is added to the BYD battery, so its scientific name should be phosphate-iron-cobalt-lithium, or LiFePO4, battery. Although BYD produces new-energy batteries, these batteries still contain heavy metals, which are released during the batteries’ decomposition. 

Wang, from the China Battery Industry Association, points out that it is common to add these substances during battery production, mainly for the improvement of battery performance. These additions won’t create any pollution. Reporters have found out that cobalt is a bit expensive, so usually little is added to batteries and most is recycled.

Objectively speaking, as lithium batteries are a new technology, they need further observation to determine their influences on the environment.

As it is not clear what influences lithium batteries have on the environment, the category of land required for their manufacture is unspecified in China’s regulations.

Therefore, the impact of BYD pollution on nearby water sources has not been subjected to quantitative research. No authoritative evaluation is available now, only the assumptions of residents and lawyers.

A staff member from the Department of Pollution Control and Environment Protection Bureau told the reporters of Caijing that related regulations are being drafted at present.

Information Should Be Open to the Public

Under great public pressure, BYD made an announcement on Nov. 14, 2011 related to the new project’s EIA. The announcement said that due to changes to the company’s development plan and the construction of the new-energy material base, a new EIS for this project would be composed and publicized.

However, this new EIS will still be written by the South China Institute of Environmental Sciences.

According to the announcement, the project has been changed in terms of both the types of products and the scale of production. The manufacture of raw materials, which is believed to give off a lot of pollution, has been removed from the production of the LiFePO4 battery, leaving only the production and assembly of battery parts. The section dedicated to producing an electrical power generating system has also been removed. The remaining sections for producing the components of solar batteries, new-energy batteries and spare parts for high-end cars mainly involve assembly, which will have a comparatively milder impact on the environment.

In order to further reduce pollution, the project’s proposed layout has been adjusted by putting the staff quarters, instead of the plants, on the side near the Zhenyeluan Valley community.

More detailed information about the new general layout and the new EIA will be published in the next announcement.

The announcement also mentioned that in accordance with the requirements of the Provisional Measure of Public Participation in Environmental Assessment, BYD would make information about the project’s impact on the local environment available to the public. This will ensure that people concerned about the project and its environmental impact can raise their questions and demands for site selection, measures of environmental protection, and other aspects of the project.

Considering the present situation, the public should expect BYD to make persistent efforts to respect established procedures and maintain open access to information.

Translated by: Yang Wenlong, Cai Yunfei, Wang Wen, Zhao Shengwei, Ding Jieqiong, Fang Yi
Proofread by: Dylan O’Donoghue
Edited by: Madelyn Finucane


Copyright © 2011 - All Rights Reserved - 绿家园环境科学研究中心 京ICP备09016501号