China Environmental Law

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Kunming’s Arsenic Lake

September 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

YongzonghaiKunming continues to make environmental news.  According to China ”[h]igh accumulations of arsenic have caused severe water pollution in Yangzonghai Lake, Kunming City.”  Fishing and swimming have been banned in the Lake and an emergency plan to provide safe drinking water to the nearly 30,000 people who rely on the Lake as their drinking water source have been implemented.

The high arsenic levels were “detected by Yiliang County one year ago, but local departments did not take the matter seriously.”  It was not until the Yunnan County Environmental Protection Bureau found out about the contamination in June that people started to connect the dots.

The source of the arsenic has apparently been pinpointed.

Yang Zhiqiang, deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau, said, “A two-month investigation has indicated that Yunnan Chengjiang Jinye Industry & Trade Co. is largely responsible for arsenic pollution in Yangzonghai Lake.”

This company, located in Chengjiang County, Yuxi City, has three arsenic-related production lines, where major problems have been revealed. On the one hand, its main raw material, zinc sulfide concentrate, was found during analyses that took place over 12 months to June 2008 to contain more than ten times the permitted level of arsenic. On the other hand, no measures were put in place in the production process to prevent arsenic from contaminating recycled water. Solid waste too was found to contain high residues of arsenic.

The press report cites “ignorance” and finger pointing among local regulatory officials as the cause of the lake contamination, but it seems rather to be a poster case for the structural failures in China’s environmental regulatory scheme.  (Remember that local bumbling and “cover ups” are the story line du jour to help deflect criticism from higher ups in the currently high profile food “contamination” case).

The Environmental Protection Bureau of Chengjiang County where the polluting company, Yunnan Chengjiang Jinye, is located does “not monitor Yangzonghai Lake,” since according to a county official “Kunming City is responsible for that. They provide all our data. In the past, we knew little about arsenic pollution.” Despite this jurisdictional black hole,

an official from the emphasized that they have been making efforts to monitor the Yunnan Chengjiang Jinye Corporation, but it refuses to abide by the relevant regulations. Between 2002 and 2008 the company has been fined six times for environmental pollution infringements. Although the maximum fine of 100,000 yuan (US$14,653.52) has been imposed several times, the sum is trivial in comparison to the company’s profits.

Thus, this wasn’t a case of turning a blind eye to polluters, it was a failure of the regulatory system to provide sufficient disincentives to pollution.  In other words, the lake is polluted with arsenic because even maximum penalty amounts are so “trivial” that it makes economic sense to “pay to pollute.” 

Go Kunming has more information about the arsenic contamination and a picture of Yangzonghai Lake.  It also cites another story which reports that the Yunnan Chengjiang Jinye Corporation has been shut down and its owner arrested on criminal charges.  That’s a good start.  The owner may be one of the first to bring an appeal to Kunming’s new environmental court.

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