Last week our Head of Toxics campaigner Ma Tianjie commented on the startling news that protests from local residents in the city of Shifang had led to the cancellation of a molybdenum-copper alloy plant that had been under construction.
Concerns over the pollution created by the alloy refineries that dot China’s resource-rich regions have grown in recent years as China’s economy develops and its people become better educated about the effects of industrial waste on human health.
“I think in general smelters are heavily polluting facilities no matter what, they smelt,” said Ma Tianjie, a Greenpeace campaigner in China specializing in heavy metal waste. “We have seen a lot of cases with heavy metal smelters where there is substantial release of all kinds of toxic pollutants.”
Those pollutants are released into the air through smoke and into the nearby area's ground and water supplies through the highly toxic slag waste that is a byproduct of a refinery’s production phase. Arsenic, an element that can cause severe kidney and liver problems in humans, is often found in worrying levels in this slag.
As these health concerns have become increasingly more public, so too has opposition to these refineries in urban areas.
While companies and local governments have up until now been largely able to duck growing NIMBY-ism in urban centers around China, officials here are increasingly finding themselves accountable for the environmental legacy of these lucrative, but highly polluting industries.
A legacy that Ma warns can stay with a population for a long time. “Generally the smelters will leave a quite heavy legacy to the local community” he warned, “even decades after the facilities leave.”