The April 10 industrial spill, described by five residents of the village in Inner Mongolia, was a small-scale environmental disaster in a country with too many of them. But Sugai should have been different. The two mills had already been sued in a major case, fined and ordered to upgrade their pollution equipment after a serious spill into the Yellow River in 2004.
The official response to that spill, praised by the state-run news media, seemed to showcase a new, tougher approach toward pollution — until the later spill at Sugai revealed that local officials had never carried out the cleanup orders. Now, the destruction of Sugai is a lesson in the difficulty of enforcing environmental rules in China.
“The smell made me want to vomit,” one villager said recently, as he showed the waist-high watermark on the remains of his home. There is no shortage of environmental laws and regulations in China, many of them passed in recent years by a central government trying to address one of the worst pollution problems in the world. But those problems persist, in part, because environmental protection is often subverted by local protectionism, corruption and regulatory inefficiency.
Even as many domestic and international environmental groups now credit China with beginning to take the environment seriously, pollution is actually worsening in some crucial categories. Emissions of sulfur dioxide, the building block of acid rain, rose by 27 percent between 2000 and 2005; government projections had called for a 20 percent reduction.
“It is clear the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection is coming to a head,” said Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, according to the official New China News Agency.
The broader tension of balancing environmental protection with fast economic growth is not likely to ease. China wants to double the size of its economy by 2020. And yet Mr. Zhou did not hesitate to assign much of the blame for the undercutting of pollution control efforts to corruption and fraud by local officials.
Despite its rising public profile, the State Environmental Protection Administration remains one of the weakest agencies in the central government bureaucracy and has sought to increase its regulatory powers. For years, it has complained that local environmental protection bureaus are accountable to local officials rather than the state agency. This has meant that local regulators had to answer to mayors or other local officials who may have had financial or other interests in protecting polluting industries.
In early August, SEPA announced that it would establish 11 regional offices to monitor pollution problems better. The agency also announced that local officials eligible for promotion would be judged on their pollution track record, in addition to how well they deliver economic growth.
Public disgust over pollution is growing. In May, the official English-language newspaper China Daily reported that more than 50,000 disputes and protests arose in 2005 over pollution. Public complaints to the national environmental administration rose by 30 percent.
“We have heard many complaints saying. ‘no clean official, no clean water,’ ” Zhang Lijun, a deputy director at SEPA, told China Daily.
Here in Urad Qianqi, a city along the Yellow River that encompasses Sugai, officials delayed for almost five weeks before finally refusing to be interviewed about the spill. Provincial officials also declined to talk, as did administrators with the paper mills and the local irrigation district.
In July, a reporter, photographer and researcher for The New York Times visited the village after being warned it was under official watch to prevent outsiders from entering. After nightfall, a sedan without license plates pursued the Times’s hired car and tried to force it to the side of the road. The Times’s car escaped to a highway but was later stopped by the police, who questioned the driver for about three hours.
Even without official cooperation, the basic chronology of the Sugai spill can be reconstructed through interviews with villagers, the handful of accounts in the Chinese news media and reports issued by the environmental agency.
For decades, the two factories, Saiwai Xinghuazhang Paper Company and Meili Beichen Paper Company, dumped their toxic sludge directly into the Yellow River. Five years ago, the introduction of new regulations ended that dumping, and factories began pumping the waste instead into a long drainage canal connected to the region’s intricate irrigation and flood protection system.
But in June 2004, the commission that regulates the irrigation system decided to address rising water levels in the system by dumping polluted canal water into the Yellow River. The release created a pollution slick that killed tens of thousands of fish and plunged the downstream city of Baotou into a drinking water crisis that lasted several days.
Industrial accidents are common in China. Millions of residents in Harbin, in northeastern China, were forced to depend on bottled water after a major benzene spill contaminated the Songhua River last November. During the first four months of 2006, SEPA reported another 49 “major’’ industrial accidents and illegal pollution discharges. A study it released last month found that roughly 80 percent of China’s 7,555 more heavily polluting factories are located on rivers, lakes or in heavily populated areas.
The official handling of the 2004 spill into the Yellow River was initially considered a groundbreaking success. The city of Baotou was awarded almost $300,000 in damages from the two factories and the irrigation district in what state news media called the first pollution lawsuit on the Yellow River. Government agencies ordered the factories shut down to install water recycling and treatment equipment. SEPA ordered the mills to comply with national water emission requirements.
Officials in Urad Qianqi decided instead to build large, temporary wastewater containment pools directly beside the river. Li Wanzhong, director of the Inner Mongolia Environmental Protection Bureau, concluded that those pools were a threat to the river. China Environment News, the official publication of the state environmental administration, reported that Mr. Li had ordered Urad Qianqi to close the factories if they continued to violate emissions standards.
But the factories were never closed. Then, a violent storm last April set off a crisis. High winds threatened to push wastewater from the pools into the Yellow River. Villagers were told that officials feared another spill into the river would expose their failure to carry out earlier orders. So officials ordered that a containment pool wall be broken so that wastewater could be diverted into a three-mile strip beside the river where several small villages, including Sugai, stood.
The only warning came from a Sugai villager who made a surreptitious telephone call from his job at one of the factories. A dozen farmers frantically tried to build a mud dike.
“The water was too high, and it didn’t work,” said one 37-year-old farmer, who, like other villagers, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “The water came all of a sudden. It was poisonous water, but I don’t know what poisons were in it.”
Three months after the spill, the homes remained uninhabitable. Large pools of black water festered in the lowest-lying areas. All but three houses — built on higher ground — had been abandoned. The farmland, once considered among the best in the area, was contaminated. Most residents had relocated to nearby villages after receiving cash settlements based on the size of their home.
“The reason this accident happened is that the local government didn’t follow the directives of the central government,” said a 40-year-old man whose father had lived in the village. He added, “They also wanted to protect the local industries.”
Urad Qianqi’s Communist Party secretary, Jia Yingxiang, later told the New China News Agency that installing the required wastewater treatment plants was too expensive. He said factories were allowed to reopen because so many local workers were dependent on them.
In fact, Urad Qianqi officials had promised in 2000 to build water treatment equipment but never did. Environmental regulators did examine the containment pools at the two paper mills. A government report after the April spill deemed the pools to be substandard and said that local officials and factory bosses had reduced the height of the walls to save money.
Health problems connected to the spill had begun to emerge in July. A dozen or more Sugai villagers had severe rashes on their legs. On July 13, government doctors arrived with ointments.
“The doctors didn’t say what was wrong with me,” said one 40-year-old mother with large red welts and rashes on her thighs. “It is hard to sleep at night because of the itching.”
Her husband, meanwhile, is worried about supporting his family. “Even if we put seeds in the earth there,” the man, 44, said, “they won’t grow because the pollution is too severe.”