By Wei Wang
Zheng Gumei thought she was down with a cold until the doctor told her to wait outside the room so he could talk to her son alone. "I knew then that I must have a serious illness," the 47-year-old farmer recalled, wiping away the tears and then staring into the distance. "I'm having treatment now. See, my hair has fallen out," she said, taking off her hat to show the side-effects of chemotherapy.
Such stories have become much more common in China in recent years as breakneck economic growth increasingly takes its toll on the nation's health.
Rare earth minerals have played a key role in the transformation and explosive growth of China's world-beating economy over the last few decades. China, which possesses one-third of the world's rare-earth reserves and provides more than 90 percent of the world's supplies, has seen environmental damage from the mining and processing and depletion of the resource.
Baotou, a small rural village in Inner Mongolia, is the largest Chinese source of these strategic elements, essential to advanced technology, from smartphones to GPS receivers, but also to wind farms and, above all, electric cars, and to see the small village, one would never realize there is a flip-side to life just down the road. With a population exceeding 2.65 million people, it is hard to imagine that in 1950, there were only 97,500 people. But the minerals, and the world's lust for more and more of them has driven the influx of people to the region.
In 1958, the Baotou Iron and Steel company started producing REEs, forming the Balyun-Obo Mine. At that time, there was little or no pollution, and cattle grazed in pastures next to fields of watermelons, aubergines, and tomatoes. Today, the pastoral scenes have been replaced by abandoned houses, fields gone to weeds and smoke-belching factories.
The Baotou lake was started in 1958, a pond for the waste-water produced from mining the rare earth minerals from the open-pit mine. For every ton of REEs taken from the ground, there are 340,000 to 420,000 cubic feet of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid released. Additionally, approximately 2,600 cubic feet of acidic waste-water and about a ton of radioactive waste residue are also produced.
The vast sludge lake can even be seen on Google Maps.
Zoom in far enough and you can make out the dozens of pipes that line the shore.
The shore is coated with a black crust.
From the air it looks like a huge lake, fed by many tributaries, but on the ground it turns out to be a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world, collectively known as rare earths. The concentration of rare earths in the ore is very low, so they must be separated and purified, using hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths.
"To begin with we didn't notice the pollution it was causing. How could we have known?" As secretary general of the local branch of the Communist party, Mr.Li is one of the few residents who dares to speak out.
Ten years later the villagers had to accept that vegetables simply would not grow any longer. In the village of Xinguang Sancun – much as in all those near the Baotou factories – farmers let some fields run wild and stopped planting anything but wheat and corn.
The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukaemia. "Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, aubergines and tomatoes," says Li Guirong with a sigh.
"In this place, if you eat the contaminated food or drink the contaminated water it will harm your body," Zheng said, pointing towards lifeless fields now strewn with rubbish around the village, a few hundred metres from the dump. Zheng was cautious, however, about the health implications. "Many officials have suggested we invite experts to do a systematic study, but we haven't done this yet because of budget and other reasons." she said. "Plants grew badly. They would flower all right, but sometimes there was no fruit or they were small or smelt awful." Ten years later the villagers had to accept that vegetables simply would not grow any longer. In the village of Xinguang Sancun – much as in all those near the Baotou factories – farmers let some fields run wild and stopped planting anything but wheat and corn.
A study by the municipal environmental protection agency showed that rare-earth minerals were the source of their problems. The minerals themselves caused pollution, but also the dozens of new factories that had sprung up around the processing facilities and a fossil-fuel power station feeding Baotou's new industrial fabric. Residents of what was now known as the "rare-earth capital of the world" were inhaling solvent vapour, particularly sulphuric acid, as well as coal dust, clearly visible in the air between houses.
Now the soil and groundwater are saturated with toxic substances. Five years ago Li had to get rid of his sick pigs, the last survivors of a collection of cows, horses, chickens and goats, killed off by the toxins.
The farmers have moved away. Most of the small brick houses in Xinguang Sancun, huddling close to one another, are going to rack and ruin.
Lu Yongqing, 56, was one of the first to go. "I couldn't feed my family any longer," he says. He tried his luck at Baotou, working as a mason, then carrying bricks in a factory, finally resorting to selling vegetables at local markets, with odd jobs on the side. Registered as farmers in their identity papers, the refugees from Xinguang Sancun are treated as second-class citizens and mercilessly exploited.
The farmers who have stayed on tend to gather near the mahjong hall. "I have aching legs, like many of the villagers. There's a lot of diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems. All the families are affected by illness," says He Guixiang, 60. "I've been knocking on government doors for nearly 20 years," she says. "To begin with I'd go every day, except Sundays."
By maintaining the pressure, the villagers have obtained the promise of financial compensation, as yet only partly fulfilled. There has been talk of new housing, too. Neatly arranged tower blocks have gone up a few kilometres west of their homes. They were funded by compensation paid by Baogang to the local government.
"The cancer situation in the village has nothing to do with us," said Candy Xu, foreign sales manager. "The pollution accumulated over 10 years. It can't be solved immediately but we deal with it year by year. Within three-to-five years I believe we can clear it up. The previous company was irresponsible to the local residents and it is not fair to blame us for their mistakes."
But the buildings stand empty. The government is demanding that the villagers buy the right to occupy their flat, but they will not be able to pass it on to their children.
Farmers said they have no other source of water for their crops and animals. Goat herders said a tenth of their animals had died.
The impact may well have spread into the human food chain. "The money we earned from selling rare earths is not enough for repairing the environment ... definitely not enough," Wang Qingdi, a peach farmer who lives next to the chemical factory, said her crops were ruined by contaminated water and air, but she still sold them at the market because she had no other source of income.
"When the wind blows in this direction, a thick layer of soot settles on my peach trees," he said. "Lots of fruit turn black and fall to the ground, I dare not eat the rice I plant and harvest because the pollution is so bad. I sell it on the street."
For Zheng, her breast cancer does not just threaten her life, but the financial well-being of her daughter. She has had to borrow 20,000 yuan ($3,200) for two courses of chemotherapy and estimates it will cost another 80,000 yuan to cure the disease. She knows that is far from certain.
"People like us can only cultivate the land and raise animals. If we don't have a regular job, where will our income come from, how will we live?" asked Zheng, her brown face creased with worry.
Beijing Evening News - Newspaper layout,
Published on December 1st, 2010.