In April 2006, waste water from two paper mills in Inner Mongolia spilled out of containment ponds and flooded the village of Sugai. Villagers were forced to leave their homes. “The smell made me want to vomit,” one villager told New York Times reporter Jim Yardley.
It isn’t the first time waste water from the two companies, Sawai Xinghuazhang Paper Company and Meili Beichen Paper Company in Urad Qianqi, has caused problems. In 2004, the companies were fined and ordered to upgrade their pollution equipment after spilling more than one million cubic metres of waste water into the Yellow River.
For decades the companies dumped their waste water directly into the Yellow River. The New York Times reports that since 2001, when new regulations were introduced, the mills have pumped their waste into a canal linked to the regions irrigation and flood control. Pumping toxic pulp and paper mill waste into irrigation canals doesn’t sound much better to me than pouring it into the Yellow River.
In June 2004, the authorities in charge of regulating irrigation decided to deal with rising water levels by dumping the polluted canal water into the Yellow River. The resulting pollution killed tens of thousands of fish. The companies were forced to pay almost US$300,000 in damages to a water supply company in the downstream town of Baotou. Government agencies ordered the mills shut down to install water recycling and treatment facilities.
Instead, officials decided to build wastewater storage ponds, next to the river. Jia Yingxiang, Urad Qianqi’s Communist Party secretary, later told the New China News Agency that installing the required wastewater treatment plants was too expensive and too many local workers depended on the mills.
In April 2006, high winds threatened to push the water from the storage ponds into the Yellow River. Rather than polluting the river again, officials ordered that part of a pond wall be demolished to divert the toxic waste away from the river. Several villages are on the land where the water was diverted.
Three months after the spill the villages were still uninhabitable. “Large pools of black water festered in the lowest-lying areas,” reports the New York Times.
According to a website called Corporate Social Responsibility in Asia, the Meili Beichen Paper Company was established in 1955, employs 680 people and makes cardboard boxes. Saiwai Xinghuazhang Paper is one of the top 50 companies in Inner Mongolia, produces 100,000 t/yr of paper and aims to increase this to 300,000 t/yr by 2008. It has an ISO 9002 certificate and employs 3,100 people.
In 2004, a Hong Kong company called DiChain entered into a joint venture with Saiwai Xinghuazhang Paper Company to build a new plant in Inner Mongolia to produce toilet paper. DiChain representatives visited Saiwai Xinghuazhang Paper Company one month after the 2004 spill, but were apparently not put off.
All this could be used as an argument for closing down China’s old, polluting pulp and paper mills and replacing them with massive, more efficient, modern plants. But such arguments have more to do with serving the needs of the global pulp and paper industry to continually expand than the needs of people living in China. A better solution might be stricter regulation of existing polluting industries such as the pulp and paper industry.