Water pollution: the dirty China story

Feature Story - 2009-10-13
Greenpeace China checks up on how a new environmental regulation is working in China and finds big companies like Shell and Sinopec are ignoring it.

Chinese and overseas companies flout China's new environmental regulation.

Go straight to the press release on the Silent Giants investigation.

How can we stop factories from polluting?

One of the key ways to control pollution is to force factories to make public what chemicals they are releasing into the environment.

Experience has shown that this kind of regulation, as well as being a good way to keep an eye on what factories are doing, also can encourage them to pollute less.

It's embarrassing when everyone can see how dirty you are, after all.

Polluted China

Water pollution is one of China's most serious environmental problems.

Factories bring wealth but they also poison China's water resources.

The situation is now so bad that 70 percent of the country's rivers, lakes and reservoirs are not safe for humans to use.

Last May, China made its first steps into setting up such a law with a regulation called Measures on Environmental Information Disclosure.

This regulation does not make all factories report their pollution.

But it does order any factory found by local environment offices to be polluting over local standards to publish its emissions information on a major media platform within 30 days.

Greenpeace China looked at how that single rule has worked in the first year of operation (May 2008 to May 2009) with top overseas and Chinese companies.

Silent Giants

The news is shocking.

We looked at the biggest enterprises - those belonging to Fortune Global 500 (2008) or Fortune China 100 (2008) companies - who had been picked out by local environment offices as breaking pollution standards.

In that first year, 18 companies from these two lists were found to be breaking pollution standards which means they had to report their pollution information.

But not a single one published their pollution data within the 30-day time limit.

And in fact only three of them eventually ended up publishing anything at all (one of them well over a year after the deadline).

Who are these companies?

They are all pretty much household names.

Here's the list of international companies:

Shell, Samsung Electronics, Nestle, LG, Kraft, Motorola, Denso and Bridgestone.

And here's the list of Chinese companies:

Sinopec, Guangdong Midea Group, China Shenhua Energy, Aluminum Corporation of China, Dongfeng Automobile, China Resources Enterprise, China International Marine Containers (Group), China Coal Energy, Guangdong Midea Holding, Weichai Power and Hunan Nonferrous Metals Corp.

What does this mean?

Clearly, organisations are ignoring the new regulation.

And clearly local government is not enforcing it.

The regulation itself is also flawed because the wording is too vague.

It doesn't clearly define which companies should publish their pollution data, what pollution data should be published nor exactly where should this data be published.

It's the equivalent of saying a factory can publish what it likes if it likes to and just place it at the bottom of a broken filing cabinet stuck in the basement of an abandoned building.

We hope our report Silent Giants will encourage the government to create a strong environmental regulation that creates a public database of pollution information and ensures factories regularly update a wide range of pollution data on this database.

Lessons from the developed world have shown that this is  key to controlling industrial pollution.

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