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A stand against China's pollution tide

The fouling of the Xiang River attracted wide attention, but it was far from unique as China struggles to reconcile breakneck economic growth with protection of the environment. One local official is trying to change that.
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Tired and frustrated, Wang Guoxiang and other Xiangtan city officials were slurping a midnight snack of instant noodles last Friday when the anti-pollution chief for Hunan province walked into their crisis room. Immediately, Wang said, he stopped eating and shouted at the visitor.

At the top of his voice, he insisted that something be done to stop the discharge of poisonous metals that had begun three days earlier into the slow, meandering Xiang River, from which Xiangtan, 800 miles south of Beijing, draws its drinking water. As a people's delegate, Wang recalled complaining to the environmental official, he and his allies had been fighting for months for more controls on upstream smelters but had found little support from the provincial authorities.

"You guys pay no attention to the safety of drinking water for our Xiangtan people. If you can't solve the problem this time, your position is in danger," Wang said he told the anti-pollution chief, Jiang Yimin. "And I wasn't kidding," he added.

The late-night confrontation in Xiangtan, a sprawling city of 500,000, was a telling episode in China's latest pollution drama: the accidental release into the Xiang River of heavy doses of cadmium, a likely carcinogen, by a state-owned smelter in an industrial park about 25 miles upstream.

The fouling of the Xiang River attracted wide attention, but it was far from unique as China struggles to reconcile breakneck economic growth with protection of the environment. After more than two decades of swift industrialization, a recent government report found that up to 70 percent of the country's rivers and lakes are seriously polluted.

In reaction, extensive national regulations have been put into place, including a government decision Sunday requiring local officials to immediately notify officials in Beijing of any toxic spills. But on the ground, business owners and Communist Party officials often cooperate closely. Enforcement of environmental rules has often been lax, and the result has been frequent contamination of the waterways that China's 1.3 billion people depend on for drinking water.

At about the same time that Xiangtan faced its pollution crisis, a frozen pipe burst in eastern Henan province, releasing six tons of diesel fuel that floated in a 40-mile-long slick down a branch of the Yellow River. Authorities said 63 water pumps had to be shut down, including some at Jinan, the capital of neighboring Shandong province.

Farther south, Guangdong provincial authorities announced Tuesday that water drawn from the Bei River was safe to drink again three weeks after an unauthorized discharge of cadmium. And the famed Pearl River, which runs through Guangdong into the South China Sea, has turned dangerously saline at its southern end because of low water levels and high tides.

Xie Shaodong, an environmental specialist at Peking University, said China is passing through a stage of economic development in which, as the history of other countries has shown, ecological damage is to be expected. To halt the degradation, he said, China's environmental protection agencies should be granted more power and the news media should be allowed to report more fully on the issue.

Recent attention
Although pollution has long been recognized as a major problem in China, local officials and the government-controlled press have focused particular attention on it recently because of an internationally embarrassing spill in November. In that episode, benzene contamination of the Songhua River forced a cutoff of drinking water in Harbin, a major city 650 miles north of Beijing, and sent toxic waste downstream to cities and towns in the Russian Far East.

Local officials made the Songhua calamity worse by concealing it for several days, leading to complaints from Russia and, ultimately, sanctions from China's central government and the new notification rule issued Sunday. Officials involved in the coverup were dismissed and one committed suicide. But as Wang's experience in Xiangtan showed, the instinctive reaction of many local party and government officials is still to conceal and minimize.

Only hours before Jiang walked into the Xiangtan crisis meeting Friday evening, Wang had learned that the city's Environmental Protection Administration had measured cadmium levels at 25 times the amount considered safe for drinking water. His own measurement, Wang said, showed even higher levels.

Cadmium, a soft element found in metal ores, can cause liver, kidney and bone disease if ingested in large quantities. For most of the year, Wang said, he and two colleagues in the People's Congress, an appointed city council, had been trying to persuade provincial authorities to tighten controls over the smelters upstream from Xiangtan, which he said frequently dump dangerous quantities of cadmium and other elements into the river.

'I just couldn't believe my eyes'
Frustrated by the lack of response at the provincial level, Wang had arranged for Xiangtan's Environmental Protection Administration to test the water every 10 days. When he received Friday's report, "I just couldn't believe my eyes," he said in an interview.

Wang alerted Communist Party officials in the city, who met into the night. Jiang made his appearance about midnight and, before dawn, set in motion a large-scale cleanup operation. Later that day, he and provincial environment officials announced at a news conference that the cadmium would be neutralized with chemicals dumped into the river and diluted with water diverted from upstream reservoirs.

The cadmium entered the Xiang River on Jan. 4 when workers mistakenly diverted river water into two basins used to separate cadmium and other smeltering byproducts, Wang said. The water overwhelmed the basins and washed back into the river, which carried the accumulated poisons downstream.

Jiang, the provincial anti-pollution chief, told reporters that authorities halted the backflow and took other steps that ensured water supplies were safe. "The Hunan provincial authorities properly handled the cadmium spill in the Xiang River," People's Daily, the official party newspaper, concluded in its Monday editions.

Local newspapers and broadcast stations were ordered to limit their reports to Jiang's statement and were barred from reporting about drinking water conditions in Xiangtan and Changsha, the capital of Hunan province farther downstream, during the three days from Jan. 4 until emergency measures were put into place.

As a result, Xiangtan residents appeared unconcerned by the crisis. "If you want to know about pollution, go ask the people at the Environmental Protection Administration," said an elderly man basking in winter sunshine beside the Xiang River.

Provincial propaganda authorities also prohibited reporters from focusing on Wang's earlier efforts to get the smelters to adhere to national environmental standards, local journalists said. Jiang said in a telephone interview Wednesday, however, that his office would now carry out an investigation.

"We will punish those who pollute the Xiang River," he added, "as well as related officials from the local Environmental Protection Administration for their malpractices."

The controlled press, meanwhile, published official assurances that drinking water was safe because of the emergency chemical treatment by Xiangtan's water distribution system. Nevertheless, the news reports said, the river water still contained unhealthy amounts of cadmium.

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.