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By Monica Tan
Earlier this year we were all shocked by the news that a chemical company in southern China's Yunnan province had been illegally dumping toxic cancer-causing waste near the village of Xinglong. The problem was so serious that the Chinese press began calling Xinglong a cancer village. Yunnan Liuliang Chemical Industry had dumped 5,000 tons of the hazardous waste and had another 140,000 tons that would likely have ended up the same way if they had not been discovered. The waste should have been driven to the neighbouring province of Guizhou to a processing plant.
The chemical waste, containing toxic chromium VI, had seeped into the soil, drinking water and crops. And the villagers did not know the real dangers. They were still drinking the water and walking in their fields barefoot.
As soon as we heard about the news, Greenpeace sent a rapid response team to the area to document the problem and raise awareness among the local people. When we tested the water used by the villagers for drinking, the levels of chromium VI were so high the readings went off the scale.
Our work and the resulting media attention then kick-started a clean-up campaign. The local government fenced off the polluted area, surveyed the region for other illegal waste sites, tested for levels of contamination and then made the results public.
There are many other chromium waste dump sites across China, endangering people's lives and polluting the land and water. Following our work in Yunnan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced a national crackdown on chromium waste sites, with clear timelines. And it's had a positive spill-on effect into other waste issues such as e-waste.
Then in October, local environmental NGO (non-governmental organization), Friends of Nature, filed a public interest law suit against Luliang Chemical for dumping the toxic chromium waste. This is the first time a grassroots Chinese NGO has successfully brought a public interest lawsuit to court.
Ma Tianjie, from Greenpeace in Beijing, was part of the Greenpeace rapid response team that was dispatched to Yunnan to investigate that toxic chromium dump. Here he shares with us his experiences:
The drivers working for the chemical company were lazy and so they dumped the toxic chromium waste in several sites in the hills here. Rain washed the waste into a nearby reservoir killing dozens of cattle and sheep. And the bigger problem is that Liuliang Chemical still has more than 100,000 tons of untreated chromium waste. If there was a bad storm this waste could contaminate the source of the Pearl River and turn it into a toxic soup.
We visited a nearby village, called Xinglong, which because of abnormally high rates of cancer has been dubbed a cancer village by the media. We took some measurements from the mouth of an underground aquifer, which locals call 'the dragon's fountain' and it was hundreds of times over the safe limit for chromium. But still local villagers plant their crops barefoot and put their cattle and sheep out to graze on this contaminated land. They told us crops fail and their livestock die for no reason.
The other members of the emergency response team and I put on rubber boots, gloves and masks, and dug through the chromium waste dump to take suitable samples. We also told the villagers how to protect themselves and urged the local government to take immediate action.
Sadly, this dump in Liuliang County is not the only one. There are similar toxic dump sites all across the country including in Tianjin, Henan and Hunan. They are like toxic time bombs. We hope that we can use this Yunnan example to kick start a big cleanup everywhere. We have taken the first step.
Chromium VI—Fast Facts
- Heavy metal, highly toxic, commonly used in electroplating or in the manufacture of stainless steel.
- Included on China's national list of hazardous waste, one of eight substances most harmful to the human body.
- Difficult to break down, it requires years or even decades to completely clean up.
- In the U.S., similar contaminated sites are still not completely clean even after 30 years.
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