Songhua river spill: Law and policy reform in environmental policy in China

The discharge of major pollutants, especially from industrial sources, has surpassed the sustaining capacity of the environment, according to many scholars. It is reported that more than 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted while underground water in 90 percent of Chinese cities are also affected. It is also estimated that more than 300 million people nationwide have no access to clean water.

The total volume of fresh water in China reaches 2700 billion m3, which ranks sixth in the world. However, due to China’s huge population, the amount of water resources per capita is small: about 2200 m3, only equivalent to one fourth of the world average. This categorizes China as one of the thirteen countries with the lowest per capita water resources in the world. Furthermore, the water resources distribution is uneven. The water resources per capita in northern China are especially poor; it only amounts to one fifth of southern China’s and one tenth of the world average.

Amongst China’s rapid growth comes a heavy price in the environment. Clean water is important for the well being of all humans, plants and animals for if water is contaminated it will greatly harm people and the environment on multiple levels. However, China is lacking clean water due to waste constantly being dumped into its water sources by factories having malfunctioning problems, such as leaks or explosions. Amongst its rapid growth China is trying to find its balance between growth and environmental protection and has learned the consequences of not adequately ensuring environmental sustainability and protection, especially for its fresh water supply. Through this process, the need for environmental standards reform is becoming a very critical issue in China. There have been certain cases where this is apparent but one model can serve as a good example- the Songhua River spill.

The Songhua River basin, which is where the Songhua river is located and runs through, includes parts of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Liaoning Province in addition to sizable areas in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. Long known as the “industrial cradle of China,” the northeastern region centered on the Songhua watershed produced much of the country’s first steel, machine tools, locomotives and airplanes following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The Songhua River has been key to the development of areas like Jilin. Jilin’s agricultural production is centered upon rice, maize, and sorghum and rice is mostly cultivated in the eastern parts while herding sheep is an important activity in the western parts. Jilin is also one of the most important commodity grain bases in China and is ranked 6th in timber production. The yields of ginseng and deer antlers are among the largest in China, being used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine. These resources are all of great use in China and the proper upkeep and cultivation of crops like rice and maize are important for the well being of all Chinese. In order to due so though, water sources such as the Songhua River need to be monitored and protected properly.

However, in November 2005, the Songhua River was heavily polluted from a blast at an upstream state-owned petrochemical plant in Jilin City. It was estimated that about 100 tons of harmful benzene and nitrobenzene mixed with quantities of fire-fighting-use water spilled into the river and formed an 80-km pollution slick belt flowing downstream. Pollution had taken its toll in China’s northeastern region and spread like wildfire.

Many news articles have said that approximately ten days passed before Chinese government officials issued the first public reports of the spill. All the while, the spill continued to migrate downstream through multiple population centers and towards the Amur River in Russia, which threatened the water safety of the Russian border city Khabarovsk with more than 600,000 residents. Fishermen continued to fish (and people presumably continued to drink from) the stretch of river between Jilin City and Harbin having had no information to suggest they should do otherwise.

Later Harbin, the capital city of neighboring Heilongjiang Province, was forced to cut off water supplies to its 3.8 million residents for four days. Local bureaucrats reportedly told the people of Harbin, that it was suspending water distribution to perform routine waterworks maintenance. The initial misinformation prompted disbelief and, according to some reports, unfounded rumors that the announcement was in response to predictions of an earthquake. In addition Jiamusi, the second largest downstream city with more than 2 million people, had to shut down its riverside No. 7 waterworks in an effort to protect the underground water sources as well. 5 Water however was shipped into the Jilin area as well as the rest of Northeastern China, but it was limited which left many residents in vain.

China did however, help to minimize the pollution and reduce the damage to the Russian side. China had twice sent to Russia pollution-relief materials and, upon the Russian request, helped build a temporary dam to block the polluted water. Almost 3,000 Chinese nationals were helping construct the dam to try and protect the Russian city’s water supplies. During that same time period, the Chinese government was also reportedly providing pollution control equipment to the Russians.

China also helped Khabarovsk construct dikes on the Kazakevitch channel located upstream of the city’s main water supplies. The situation raised concerns that the Russian city would have to shut down its central heating systems (with daytime highs reaching a reported minus 4° F) to prevent benzene and related chemicals from entering municipal piping systems. This was not done though but some scholars still feel fear that the spill may have still left small remnants in the piping systems. More so, participation by other countries appears to have been limited. The Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of International Affairs has stated that China declined offers from the United States to send a response team. The United Nations response team that went to China was reportedly not allowed to visit the site or take water samples.

So how could have China allowed such an incident to occur? It is true to a large extent that by 2005 China had already been taking measures to secure better overlook in its factories and petrochemical plants but reactions and measures taken towards the spill appear to have been very slow considering how much of the Jilin area is inhabited. The Songhua River spill was considered to be one of the worst of its kind in China since 1949 which shows that China has been using some out-dated laws and policies to secure the safety of such petrochemical plants. However, there have yet to been clear-cut answers regarding this matter but China has been taking measures. Certain officials that have made faulty decisions have been replaced and China has bumped up its overlook in its environmental protection administration.

For example, nineteen days after the Songhua River leak occurred, Xie Zhenhua, the 56-year-old director of the ministry-level State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), quit his post as his resignation was approved by the State Council, China’s cabinet. He was replaced by Zhou Shengxian, former director of the State Forestry Administration. The Chinese government and the State Council said that after the spill occurred, SEPA failed to pay sufficient attention to the incident and has underestimated its possible serious impact. They also said that SEPA should bear responsibility for the losses caused by this incident.

The newly appointed SEPA director Zhou cited the Songhua River pollution as “a pain like cutting the flesh” and a major incident “that shocked the world”. Zhou also said that, “we’ll take environmental protection into account while evaluating the performance of local officials. Those who fail to meet state requirements will pay a price for their negligence of duty”. Zhou also has on many occasions called for strict law enforcement to protect China’s environment, with emphasis on the prevention and control of industrial pollutions, which shows that China is tightening its belt and is taking environmental protection more seriously.

To show SEPA’s further commitment, it later launched a comprehensive review of chemical and petrochemical projects near major water areas. A total of 180,000 environmental law enforcement workers throughout the country were mobilized to carefully examine 49,000 major enterprises. There were also environmental officials hired to inspect the potential risks of more than 100 key chemical and petrochemical projects under construction with a total investment of 450 billion yuan (54.37 billion U.S. dollars). These projects are located near environmentally-sensitive areas like the shores of rivers, lakes, oceans, densely-populated regions and nature reserves. SEPA also found 20 large projects with serious environmental safety problems, including 11 along China’s longest Yangtze River, one on the Yellow River and two at the Daya bay, involving the sectors of oil refining, ethylene and methanol. SEPA ordered those in charge of the projects to take immediate measures to address the problems.

The Songhua River pollution incident has become a turning point however, in China’s history of environmental law enforcement and protection. China has continued to bump up its overlook on environmental protection. There are roughly 4,000 environmental supervision and environmental law enforcement organs with an estimated 50,000 staff workers nationwide, responsible for the supervision of nearly 300,000 industrial pollution enterprises, some 700,000 other industrial enterprises and around 10,000 construction sites. They also take charge of collecting pollutants discharge fees, which total over 12 billion yuan (1.45 billion U.S. dollars) a year, and investigate and handle 60,000 cases of environmental incidents and disputes each year.

In addition, China also implemented a new policy in 2006 called the “11th Five-Year Development Program”, which took place from 2006-2010. It called for environmental supervisory forces nationwide to expand to 80,000, while the equipment for environmental law enforcement was also upgraded. The policy also discussed new forms of penalties and revisions for laws on the prevention and control of water pollution, which included penalties for the violation of environmentally-related laws at around 26,000 yuan (3,200 U.S. dollars) per day minimum. It also required the energy consumption per unit of GDP to decline by 20 percent compared with the end of the Tenth Five-Year Plan period and the total amount of major pollutants discharged shall be reduced by ten percent. To handle sudden environmental pollution incidents more effectively, China also established an advanced environmental monitoring and early-warning system, and a sound environmental law enforcement and supervision system, in an effort to enhance its early-warning capability in case of environmental emergencies, as well as to improve its all-round environmental supervision and management capabilities. In 2005, more than 2,600 small enterprises in the iron and steel, cement, iron alloy, coking, paper-making, and textile printing and dyeing industries were closed down for having caused serious environmental pollution and violated industrial policies.

There has also been a lot of other government agencies, research institutes and other organizations in China that have conducted a great deal of research supported by a variety of funds, including the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the National Basic Research Program of China (973 Program), Hi-Tech Research and Development Program of China (863 Program), Key Technologies R&D Program, special fund of the State Environment Protection Administration, and so forth. Research through these programs have covered a large range of fields including the prevention and management of water pollution, health impact of water pollution, safety evaluation of drinking water and a warning system as well. In 2007, the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law of People’s Republic of China (revised draft) was unveiled and the new Standards for Drinking Water Quality came into effect, indicating that China is ready to make efforts to meet the growing demands of drinking water quality and safety.

These actions show that organizations in China, especially SEPA, are stepping up and taking more action to solve environmental issues in China and there are more and more financial consequences for companies that try to cut corners. Some officials are taking it one step further by stating that it’s not enough to punish enterprises causing environmental pollution accidents by depriving them of all their assets and that it is necessary to establish a mandatory environmental insurance system for enterprises while actively exploring a system of compensating for the losses resulting from environmental pollution.

A major problem still exists though with China’s environmental policy making. China is taking huge steps by employing thousands upon thousands of people to look over factories and petrochemical plants. This is causing owners of such plants to be more aware of the financial consequences they may face as well as the responsibilities they should assume. However, this doesn’t solve the fact that if a petrochemical plant like the one in Jilin were to suddenly face a major problem, who’s to say that another incident like that wouldn’t occur again? The root cause of the problem isn’t being solved, for if China were to really protect the environment it would abandon such plants all together. But officials constantly emphasize that amongst economic development, China can’t afford to be eco-friendly. In the meantime, there are also hundreds of unskilled workers, a lot of whom have backgrounds as peasants, and are most likely being undertrained and put into the frontline of such dangerous plants. It is not fiscal and efficient for China to be investing so much money into hiring personnel, when it rather should be looking into providing funds for companies and plants to become more eco-friendly.

More so, the Songhua River spill is also representative of the fact that environmental standards may not be keeping pace with economic development. The sharply rising demand for plastics and other oil-refined products has, according to the South China Morning Post’s December 12, 2005 edition, resulted in China’s double-digit output growth between 2003 and 2004. The breakneck pace of economic growth has, however, come at a price.

The longer-term environmental consequences of the Chinese spill are unknown. Environmental and other groups have suggested that the food chain in the Songhua river basin and corresponding region could be affected for some time. The Times (UK) reported on December 21, 2005 that fishing in the area could be banned for as long as four years. Other articles have suggested that the benzene contamination could present a long-term problem in that it can bioaccumulate in the basin’s organisms, remain trapped in river ice that will melt and result in additional releases, and become trapped in the river’s sediments. 15 These chemicals all have toxic and hazardous health effects. Some are carcinogenic, and some have adverse effects on neurological, developmental and reproductive systems. At high levels, benzene is lethal to humans. Chronic exposure leads to progressive degeneration of bone marrow and leukemia.

The Jilin spill also has longer-term implications for China’s legal system. According to some newspapers, businessmen and residents of Harbin along with professors and students from Peking University and others have filed class-action type lawsuits against Jilin Petrochemical. Russia has also sought financial compensation for the impacts associated with the spill. It is, however, unclear whether these sorts of pressures will result in any substantive change. According to some sources, the solution to China’s pollution crisis must be multi-faceted and will require, among other things, better enforcement at the local level and enhanced penalty provisions in China’s environmental laws, changes supposedly called for by the environmental lobby (including the State’s environmental agency) and, so far, largely thwarted by certain of the country’s industrial interests.

It is clear then that the Chinese motivation to address pollution control is essential to the country’s well being. According to Clif Curtis, director of WWFs Global Toxics Program, China needs stronger and national and international laws to ensure that hazardous and highly toxic substances, like those released in the explosion, are either not produced or are severely restricted. Curtis also said that the global community needs to take much more concerted action to regulate industrial chemicals more effectively. He also said that such actions must guarantee that basic safety information of chemicals is systematically provided, and that rigorous procedures and safeguards are in place.

Therefore, if China is going to sustain its natural resources, it needs to provide more than just proper overlook. Serious law and policy reforms need to be taken into consideration to ensure that China does not run into any more major accidents, like the one in the Songhua River. The ramifications of such leaks for Chinese citizens are immense, for the safety and health of citizens are compromised while at the same time the government runs the risk of multitudes of protest. Citizens may also lose faith in the systems that rule them and countries internationally will view China in a negative light, perhaps more than they have before. With such accidents China’s international relations and status are both affected and its domestic security compromised.

There needs to be a huge shift in China’s environmental policies and law, which has been slowing occurring. But in retrospect, China has only been open to the rest of the world for a short period of time and has been slowly re-adjusting itself to its new shift in politics within the last few decades. It’s easier for more modern countries to point the finger, but the reason why certain countries can do so is because they have gone through environmental issues and reform themselves and have more experience doing so. Modern countries can therefore be a guide to aiding China’s domestic progression, for the actions the government and its citizens have been taking show that China too doesn’t want to deplete its resources and is willing to change.

In the meantime, while China is slowly replacing its petrochemical and other dangerous plants, there should be extra concern given to the following points which are highlighted through projects done by various organizations like the World Bank: 17 1) more construction of wastewater interception and treatment plants as well as interceptor sewers, and new pumping stations – including modifications to existing pumping stations. 2) waste-water treatment, recycling, and process modifications, for the recovery of processed raw materials, to obtain lignin products, a binding material used primarily for zinc manufacturing; 3) construction on existing wastewater treatment plants which includes interceptor sewers, construction, or upgrading of pumping stations, in addition to the installation of sanitary landfills; 4) construction of more chlorine production facilities, based on modern ion membrane cell technology. Remedial measures to recover mercury should be taken into account, and disbursements will be subject to the development of an action plan for demolition of the mercury electrolysis facilities. 5) Reinforced concrete pipe interceptors along the banks of rivers. 6) support for urban management information systems on infrastructure planning, and, expansion of environmental water, and air quality monitoring, through improved monitoring stations; and, 7) sub-loans provision for high-environmental impact investments in in-plant technology and further support for institutional strengthening, as well as training of wastewater companies in financial, operational, and managerial capacities.

These steps will help minimize the impact China’s petrochemical factories have on the environment and will be small, yet giant steps towards China becoming more sustainable. It will only be a matter of time with the rising awareness of environmental protection in China as well as the constant amount of Western influence merging into Chinese society that China will reach a point where its policies and laws will produce a sustainable and safe environment. There is increasing evidence that the Chinese people are demanding more environmental accountability from their government. If, as indicated by the World Bank, pollution and environmental degradation are an albatross for China’s economy, there may also be a real financial incentive for the Chinese to change their ways. Public attention resulting from the Songhua River leak may have positive consequences; there is a chance that the more public these disasters become in China, the more potential they have to prompt effective environmental policy and law. It will, however, take time before the world can see whether the environmental problems of the Chinese economic boom are meaningfully addressed.

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