China steps up environmental protection in the Yangtze River region
Regions along the Yangtze River are stepping up environmental protection and ecological rehabilitation. [Photo: dfic.cn]
Anqing is an industrial city along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, China's longest natural waterway.
Many of its five million, 300-thousand residents work at or live close to the factories that are a backbone of the economy of a developing city.
In the city's northwest Daguan District, villager Liu Wanggen has witnessed the changes a mining company has brought to him and his village since 2010:
"The company suspends operations between 10 at night until 6 in the morning. All the machines and the trucks stop operating at night, so there are no loud noises disturbing our sleep."
But it wasn't like this during the first seven years when the Changyin Mining Group first operated beside Wang's village.
Between 2010 and 2017, the villagers' tranquil nightlife was disturbed by the noise of the mining company, which operated day and night.
Zhang Zhipeng is chief manager of the Changyin Mining Group, which mainly produces cement limestone and construction stone.
Zhang says his company witnessed a turning point in 2017, when it suspended operations for a comprehensive environmental overhaul that took seven months to complete:
"We felt that what we had done was not up to national environmental standards. For example, we used to process the stone in the open air. We had to take it inside and that cost 30 million yuan. Overall we spent up to 50 million yuan on projects to prevent or treat air, water and industrial waste pollution."
The company's environmental overhaul came as the city government of Anqing initiated a massive city-wide environmental protection drive in 2017.
Amid the government drive, the mining company invited third-party advisory agencies to devise targeted professional environmental schemes for it.
As part of the environmental overhaul, a huge 17,000-square-meter steel-structured factory was put up to bring the stone processing indoors. That's about the size of two and a half football pitches.
The water spray equipment in one of Changyin’s factories is working to contain the dust created during the processing of raw stone. [Photo: Chinaplus]
Water spray equipment was also installed to deal with the dust created during the processing of raw stone.
The company bought four water spraying trucks to quell the dust on the roads inside and outside the company's 87 hectares.
When we arrived at the company's processing area, our car went through a set of water spray nozzles to be sprayed clean. This automatic equipment switches on when a vehicle approaches.
Meanwhile, the company has built a special road for its own use to avoid accidents on local village roads.
Also, a sewage system has been built to treat and recycle the water flowing out of the mining and processing sites.
When we ask the company's chief manager whether the wastewater contains any chemical pollutants, Zhang's answer is no:
"Our mining company does not produce industrial-grade polluted water. The water flowing out of the mining and processing sites is mainly rainwater. In the past, the scouring of the natural landscape was caused by the rainwater without a sewage system.
“Now with our sewage system, the water goes through a three-stage sediment treatment to allow mud and sand to settle. After this process, clean water is produced and then we can recycle it for other uses, such as cleaning the roads."
With regard to noise pollution, the company says it follows strict rules that require all mining, processing and transport work to be suspended from 10 pm at night to 6am in the morning.
Zhang admits this measure has cost them a lot, but he says it's a must to consider the well-being of the some 6,500 villagers living nearby:
"Of course it comes with a big price. But we shouldn't disturb nearby villagers' sleep. We should also keep in mind road security at night. This is the economic cost we have to take on."
Most importantly, Zhang says the disused mining sites are being rehabilitated and planted with trees.
In total, the mining company has spent 50 million yuan, which is about seven million US dollars, on environmental protection, making up 12 percent of all the company's investment.
This is in sharp contrast with how the situation was before the massive overhaul, when such kind of spending made up just one or two per cent of the total investment.
Zhang says the additional investment is worthwhile:
"The strict environmental requirements of the government are a good thing for our company. Only companies that attach importance to environmental protection and are willing to make these investments will survive amid this massive government environmental protection drive. It might mean that we have to spend more money to protect the environment, but in the long run it will improve efficiency."
Zhang says the company itself carries out daily checks on its environmental measures to ensure all environmental standards are strictly implemented.
On top of this, the villagers themselves are invited to carry out the checkups.
According to company officials, the company has to pay more than two million yuan a year into a government-controlled fund to guarantee it will stick to environmental laws and regulations.
If it's found to have violated laws and caused damage to the environment, it could lose part or all of the money it has paid into the fund.
Meanwhile, to cultivate a harmonious relationship with local villagers, the mining company has contributed to upgrading the local infrastructure and villagers' welfare benefits. For example, street lighting has now been installed.
Liu Yingen, another villager, describes other benefits he and his fellow villagers have received from the company:
"The stone used in the dam of one of the ponds in our village were donated by the company. It also paid for the rails on the dam. Not only that, the company gives each of our adult villagers a 200 yuan healthcare subsidy every year. This kind of support is a real, tangible benefit for us."
According to the mining company, each year two million yuan is earmarked for subsidizing the villagers' healthcare and other social welfare programs.
As of the end of 2018, some 70 local villagers were working for the mining company and fifty trucks were being driven by local villagers to transport the raw materials and end-products for the company.
It's estimated that the company has brought a total of about 30 million yuan in economic benefits to the local villagers.
One of the factories of Shuguang chemical company was dismantled and rebuilt in another location as a result of upgrading of national environmental standards. [Photo: Chinaplus]
Founded in 1958, the Shuguang chemical company was a major enterprise in Anqing, making fertilizers and other chemical products.
One of its factories operated just beside the Yangtze River, not far from concentrated residential areas.
With the upgrading of national environmental standards, the factory's pollution prevention and treatment facilities needed to be updated or replaced.
In 2010, a relocation project was launched. After years of detailed and painstaking work, the original factory was demolished almost a year ago, in June, 2018.
The company's new factories have been re-homed in a purpose-built chemical industrial zone, some six kilometers from the nearest point of the Yangtze River.
Cao Jianming, a manager at the chemical company, says the relocation project has not been easy:
"We encountered a lot of difficulties during the relocation process. It's not easy to describe them in detail with just a few words. For example, where should the factory be relocated to? And how much would it cost? All these questions had to be properly figured out.
“Because the environmental standards had been raised, the original equipment that we had always used in the factory also had to be replaced. It meant destroying the old factory and building a new one from scratch."
Cao says the original factory was worth 600 million yuan in fixed assets. The rebuild cost some four billion yuan, about seven times the original spend.
With much of the investment having to focus on improving pollution treatment capacity, Cao says the new factory is up to national standards:
"Now we have to follow current national environmental standards in building and operating our chemical factories. We don't just have to conform to the national standards, we also have to abide by the stricter standards set by the industrial park in terms of wastewater treatment and air pollution."
Cao adds that the brand new factory will produce a third of the amount of waste water less than before – down from 1.2 million tons a year to 800 thousand tons.
Meanwhile, local government environmental supervision has been stepped up for the 400 companies in the economic and technological zone of the city.
"Now the government is strict with environmental protection. You can see a digital screen when you approach this industrial park. On the screen is all the information about the pollutants produced by companies within this industrial park. This is how the general public can supervise how we implement the environmental standards.
“With regard to my company, there is a centralized treatment facility to decontaminate the polluted water before it's discharged," says Wang Xing, a manager with the Anqing TP Goetze Piston Ring Company, which makes auto parts.
His company employs 1,800 people and made about 1.1 billion yuan in revenue last year.
Wang doesn't reveal the exact numbers when we ask him what percentage of the investment the company spends on pollution prevention and treatment.
But he does say that his company is aware of environmental protection:
"Environmental protection is essential for the sustainable development of a company. Otherwise, you will not survive."
In 2018 alone, environmental officials in Anqing made a thorough investigation into 13-hundred enterprises with regard to violations of environmental laws and regulations. Fines issued by the authorities to some of these companies amounted to more than nine million yuan.
Over the past two years, more than 800 factories were closed in the massive environmental crackdown.
Chen Yanrun, who is in charge of the environmental protection work in Anqing, says environmental protection is of vital importance:
"Environmental protection and economic development are not in conflict. With our efforts to tackle the problems, we actually create opportunities for quality, green economic development. It's also helping with our city's shift to building quality economic development."
Anqing recorded an eight percent increase year-on-year in its gross domestic product for the whole of last year, amounting to 190 billion yuan. This GDP size ranks as the third largest of all 16 cities in Anhui Province, which is undergoing rapid development.
In fact, Anqing's intensified pollution prevention and control work is a prime example of the massive ongoing environmental crackdown through the Yangtze River regions.
Saplings have been planted in a wharf area of Anqing along the Yangtze River. [Photo: Chinaplus]
Scores of wharfs are serving busy ships taking cargo or passengers in and out of the city of Anqing.
Yet although they are an essential feature of the local economy, many of the wharf areas are facing ecological degradation with little or no greenery.
To restore the natural balance, the city government has issued directives for trees to be planted around all of the wharfs by the city, setting targets to plant some 400 hectares of trees along the River bank areas this year.
When we visited one wharf area in Daguan District this spring, we saw thousands of newly-planted saplings of various kinds, waiting to grow into trees and woods.
As well as planting trees in the wharf areas, tree-planting work is being stepped up in other areas along the banks of the Yangtze River.
In one government-owned forest farm in Daguan District, a sprawling view of poplar trees can be seen right beside the Yangtze River bank.
Yang Chuanbao, a local forestry official, says they will expand the 300-hectare forest farm this year:
"The provincial government requires us to plant 80 hectares of trees. Also, as a massive effort to rehabilitate the natural environment along the Yangtze River, we ourselves have increased this provincial target by planning to plant another 25 hectares of trees to help restore the Yangtze River ecology."
This kind of tree-planting effort in Anqing is being repeated in other regions along the 6,300 kilometer Yangtze River.
According to a central government document issued in 2017, local authorities are being required to finish building a massive ecological corridor, including forests and wetlands, along the River by the end of 2020.