A personal account of life inside a Chinese mining company

Hua Ming spent three years working as an environmental manager for a major mining company in south-west China. His experience was a mixture of achievement and a sense of powerlessness

At first I was sent to an old factory, more than fifty years old. The technology was backwards and the only environmental protection equipment was a few dust filters and a simple water treatment station.

For many workers, environmental protection just meant keeping things clean. During environmental protection bureau inspections furnaces would be shut down, and my job was to check none of the chimneys were giving off any smoke.

I left there and was moved to another of the company’s smelting plants. That factory had started running in 2005 and was built to modern environmental standards – the boss used to boast that “we’re not making a park in a factory, we’re building a factory in a park.” And when I turned sulphur-heavy fumes from the smelting process into smoke clean enough to be released, I did have some small sense of achievement.

Then I worked on the construction of a new facility, deciding on and running the bidding for environmental management processes and equipment. That facility had top of the range equipment for treating water, air, noise and waste. More than 1 billion yuan was spent on environmental protection, out of a total budget of over 4 billion yuan.

The company’s principle of “creating an environmentally-friendly company” was not just empty talk. The factory where I learnt about desulphurisation is still an industry leader in China in clean production and treatment of pollution, despite the high costs. The equipment I used to capture sulphur costs over 10,000 yuan to run for a day – but was never turned off. Internal environmental controls are strict, and the punishments for workshops or factories which miss environmental targets are the harshest the company hands out.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, as both a state-owned and a listed company, corporate image is of particular concern. Second, the company has its own mines and provides much of its own raw materials, and therefore has been profitable enough in recent years that it can afford to spend on environmental protection. It also has to contend with local opposition to negative environmental impacts.

However, government requirements are never easily meet, the public make tough demands, and internal environmental standards may be even higher than those of the environmental protection bureau. Foremen often complain that all this may result in production quotas being missed, and it’s difficult to punish them, as you still have to work together. There’s always conflict between environmental protection on one hand, and production and profit on the other – and that means a constant struggle with your superiors, those outside the company, and your colleagues.

The environmental protection body

China’s environmental authorities are commonly regarded as one of the weaker government departments. Fines allowed under the Environmental Protection Law and Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law are seen as too light – the maximum of 200,000 yuan (US $33,000) is nothing for a company.

But businesses see the environmental authorities as one of the strongest government departments – not because of the fines, but their power to refuse approval of environmental impact assessments, trial production, or environmental audits for IPOs or refinancing. The criminal convictions of those involved in the Zijing mining and Qujing pollution cases also set alarm bells ringing.

Everyone is on edge when Ministry of Environmental Protection or local bureau inspections are underway. It was an open secret that when the monitors came we would cut working to get the figures up to standard. What’s more, the online monitoring equipment they installed could be fooled – the total emission figures only covered some outlets, others were not monitored.

The idea of “zero waste water” has been widely adopted by the environmental authorities in recent years. And while many companies have built full water treatment and recycling systems, zero waste water is just not achievable.

Existing water treatment techniques target particular pollutants – they do not remove all substances. Some non-pollutants such as sodium or potassium accumulate as water is recycled and eventually will cause problems during production. So there is no option but to dump them.

So it is impossible to achieve zero emissions, but now the company has no waste water outlet. The company’s best option is to illicitly dump the water into groundwater or gullies. At one industrial park in Yunnan only a few companies have official waste water outlets – so a reservoir downstream has suffered worsening water quality.

Local opposition to the factory

While I was at the old factory, villagers often came into conflict with the company over pollution.

The factory’s environmental department had a specific job post for “villagers’ compensation”. That person was responsible for making payments to villagers after pollution incidents. The company had a budget for such compensation running into several millions of yuan, but the different levels of government would all retain a part of this, and almost nothing reached the pockets of the locals themselves.

As a result, they came to the company directly. If normal channels of communication were blocked, they picketed the gate or staged sit-ins, or even became violent.

Although many villagers would do casual work at the factory and the company provided drinking water and education for their children, the pollution still turned them against the factory. It also helped them justify stealing ore or equipment.

The facilities closed down last year, after pressure from all sides. Thousands of workers were forced into early retirement and the villagers lost an important source of income. And the economy of the town is in decline – it relied on the mining industry. The workers can move to the cities to retire, but the heavy metal pollution built up over the decades in the soil will continue to affect the villagers – their only hope is a lengthy restoration program.

This article was
originally published in Green Youther, a platform for environmental discussion.