Mine waste blamed for pollution, health risks in north China county

20:31, November 05, 2009      

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In remote Gaocun Village, 500 km south of Beijing, Pang Qingru peels back her sleeves and trouser legs, showing streaks of red skin.

"Because iron ore tailings have been blown everywhere in the village, many villagers, especially children, have erythema. It's very itchy," she says.

"The village doctors can't treat it. We have to go to big hospitals to have an injection."

Fellow villager Hou Wenkui says breathing is difficult on windy days and doing farm work is almost impossible because his tracheitis is steadily getting worse.

Hills of iron ore tailings sit along the Beiming River that runs through Gaocun Village, in Wu'an county, Hebei Province. Gray dust covers the road.

Villager Hou Youliang complains the tailings were washed into his farmland and he received no compensation.

Villagers say the tailings have destroyed about 20 hectares of cropland.

In nearby Beijianshan village, mountains of mine tailings are poured into a valley.

The tailings are discharged by two iron ore suppliers -- Beiming River Iron Ore and Yushiwa Iron Ore -- which are owned and operated by the Hanxing subsidiary of China Minmetals Corporation (CMC), a major state-owned metals and minerals trader.

An illegal tailings reservoir of the two firms was blamed for the flooding that allegedly led to the shutdown of local iron ore company Jinxiang, which filed a lawsuit against the two CMC companies in July last year.

Since last year, more than 30 Gaocun villagers have signed and sent petition letters to governmental departments.

In April, the petition office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection ordered Hebei's petition agency to help settle issues concerning land, farmers' livelihoods, the environment, economic compensation and factory closures related to the iron ore producers.

And yet the issue is still unresolved. Tailings were still being discharged into the river when Xinhua reporters visited the village in late October.

LAND RECLAMATION

Chen Qilin, deputy head of Gaocun Village, said Beiming River Iron Ore had been discharging tailings into the river under a "land reclamation agreement" reached between the company and the village, which took effect in 2007.

He said the reclamation was almost finished and had created more than 40 mu of land. It had been planted with willows and other trees and more than 80 percent of them had survived and grown.

Chen said under the agreement, Beiming River Iron Ore also gave500,000 to 600,000 yuan (73,206 to 87,847 U.S. dollars) to the village annually.

Many willows, however, have died. Hou Youliang says: "The trees were planted directly into the tailings -- how could they survive?"

To the west, the tailings have formed a three-meter high dam, which holds back even bigger piles of waste. Hou says the tailings have been there for years and there is no sign of land reclamation.

Zhang Wenxue, deputy head of CMC's Hanxing subsidiary, defended the discharges, saying the two iron ore producers had their own tailings reservoir (called Jianshanbei) and discharges into the river and the valley were at the request of local governments to help the two villages make land.

Zhang said the companies had both signed agreements with each village.

Beiming River Iron Ore had agreed to pay 1.6 yuan to Gaocun for each cubic meter of tailings discharged. Yushiwa Iron Ore would pay 80,000 yuan a year to Beijianshan village for discharging tailings in the valley.

The agreements also made clear the two villages would be responsible for environmental protection and safety.

Zhang showed a document to Xinhua, which 83 officials, members of the Communist Party of China and representatives of Gaocun Village had allegedly signed to support the river beach land reclamation plan.

However, the document was dated Oct. 16 this year, the day after a media report exposed the tailings problems.

The report said that the discharges had destroyed farmland and caused serious skin diseases and respiratory problems among villagers. The CMC responded the next day and dismissed the report as "untrue."

AGREEMENTS OR EXCUSES?

But the legal validity of the agreements is subject to dispute with some experts arguing the pollution and health issues could make them void.

"The work safety department has strict regulations over the management of tailings," Huang Yi, spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety, told Xinhua when asked to comment on the issue.

No company was allowed to operate an ore waste reservoir without obtaining a license of safe production in advance, and dumping tailings into rivers or mountain valleys was obviously illegal, he said.

Chang Jian, an official with Wu'an Environment Protection Bureau, said it sounded reasonable to discharge tailings for land reclamation, but it was illegal in terms of environmental protection, he asserted.

Documents provided by the CMC's Hanxing subsidiary suggested that the two CMC producers had broken the law over their operation of the Jianshanbei waste ore reservoir.

The reservoir was put into trial operation in October 2007, 10 months before the two companies received the license of safe production last August, according to the documents.

One month later, during an inspection tour, a local official demanded the reservoir be reinforced because of safety concerns. In March this year, the municipal authority of Handan, where Wu'an is located, approved the operation of the reservoir, but the two companies have not used it since then.

The reservoir was also the subject of a lawsuit against the two CMC companies by another local iron ore company, Jinxiang, which was about 300 meters away from the reservoir.

Zhang Chunhua, Jinxiang's manager, said the reservoir had failed to build an anti-seepage system so that Jinxiang iron ore was ordered to shut down by local authority after repeated flooding.

The lawsuit is still unresolved. The Intermediate People's Court of Handan, told Xinhua the case was still under the process of investigation and evidence-collection.

China Minmetals Corporation had just released its lengthy 2008 Sustainability Report last week, which claimed it had made achievements in protecting the environment and fulfilling its social responsibilities.

Source: Xinhua
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