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At Factory Waste Ponds, Fumes Choke Fantasies

Coal and Chemical Plants in Northwest China Pledged Zero Emissions but Failed Miserably

Deep in the Tengger Desert, near a community of cattle herders about 700 kilometers west of Beijing, pipes from a complex of coal processing and chemical factories once spewed slimy wastewater into six ponds.

The "evaporation ponds" were designed to protect the desert's sensitive environment. By exposing wastewater to dry air and sunlight on the pond's surface, water was supposed to dissipate into the sky, leaving behind salt and toxins for further processing.

But the ponds never worked as planned. An oily film on each football field-sized surface inhibited evaporation. And daily for about 11 years these factories in the Tengger Industrial Park, a complex run by the city of Alashan in the northern region of Inner Mongolia whose companies reported a combined 1.2 billion yuan in revenues in 2010, released more wastewater into the ponds.

Area residents and environmental groups complained about fumes, possible groundwater contamination, and other problems. The complaints persisted for years until this fall, when the ponds were closed and filled following central government intervention.

The turnaround at Tengger is an example of what could happen soon at up to 100 evaporation pond sites across northwestern China. Pond pollution warnings have been sounded throughout the Yellow River valley's western industrial belt, which stretches across the Inner Mongolia and Ningxia autonomous regions and eastward into Shaanxi province. Some ponds operate in the far western Xinjiang region as well.

The media has raised questions about the Tengger evaporation ponds and their effects on the desert environment, prompting the prefecture governor of Alashan, Zhao Zhanjun, to declare in a statement: "The ponds mentioned by the media are high-salt-content evaporation ponds approved by environmental protection authorities."

Industrial park records show the ponds were approved by the Inner Mongolia environmental protection bureau and Alashan's development and reform commission. The ponds were supposed to "provide sewage processing through natural drying and evaporation," government documents said.

But complaints about the ponds eventually turned heads in Beijing. And soon, the central government got involved.

President Xi Jinping signed a document in early October affirming environmental problems linked to factory-waste evaporation ponds nationwide. The document also ordered officials in areas with ponds to protect the environment and, if necessary, launch clean-up campaigns.

Some clean-ups are already underway, while others such as Tengger's have nearly been completed. Projects may include draining ponds and shutting down factories. Meanwhile, local officials who initially approved some of these projects could face disciplinary action from superiors in Beijing. Some have already been punished.

Impossible Goals

Until this year, top officials in charge of government-owned factories in Inner Mongolia and Ningxia generally argued that factory evaporation ponds complied with all environmental rules for wastewater processing. Officials in Alashan, for example, for years brushed off local complaints about fumes from the Tengger ponds.

But Zhou Xueshuang, a petrochemical pollution expert at the central government's Ministry of Environmental Protection, said "almost all" of the evaporation pools built in western China in recent years "are facing pollution risks or have already been polluted." Largely unmet are the original promises made by coal and chemical processors that they would achieve "zero-liquid discharge" results at their factories, he said.

A Caixin investigation added weight to Zhou's assessment. Most of the more than 30 evaporation ponds in Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Shaanxi visited by Caixin from September to November were found to be no more than sewage-holding ponds brimming with pollutants.

At the time, Caixin found factories were discharging waste into about 100 evaporation ponds scattered across Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shaanxi, and Xinjiang.

The ponds were built during a boom period for coal mining and coal-chemical processing industries that began in late 1990s. By including pond projects in factory-building plans, companies could agree to work toward zero-emissions goals, including zero-liquid discharge, and thus win government approval for their projects. Effluent was supposed to flow from factories into ponds where the water would evaporate, leaving behind little more than salt.

In fact, said Zhou, such goals were unreachable without unreasonably huge capital outlays for special equipment and engineering that the companies never undertook. "Zero emissions" for these types of industrial processes can only be achieved in a laboratory, he said.

"Practically speaking, coal and chemical companies are unable to achieve zero emissions," he said.

And the idea of putting natural evaporation to work is particularly farfetched for coal and chemical processing facilities whose effluent contains petrochemicals. An oily film on the surfaces of most evaporation ponds in western China prevents natural evaporation, said Qu Fengchen, an engineer specializing in coal and chemical factory sewage disposal at the China National Petroleum & Chemical Planning Institute.

Because pond water cannot evaporate, he said, the dirty water under the oily surface seeps into the ground below.

Tainted Groundwater

At the Tengger site, wastewater seeping from ponds has reportedly contaminated area groundwater. A 2013 study of the site by Ma Yong, deputy head of the Law Center at the All-China Environment Federation, found excessive levels of phenol, sulfides, and coliform bacteria in water pumped from drinking wells used by people living within 2 kilometers of the industrial park.

Some environmental experts have warned that pollutants entering the groundwater from the ponds in the Yellow River valley industrial belt could eventually reach the river, a vital source of drinking water for millions of people in several provinces.

Zhou said evaporation ponds are essentially filled with "sewage that's being directly discharged into the desert, which pollutes the soil, groundwater, and the air."

Moreover, Qu said a company whose evaporation pond reaches maximum capacity may find another way to secretly and illegally dump wastewater. The only alternative is to adjust wastewater discharges according to the rate that pond water seeps into the ground.

China has no national standards for building and managing evaporation ponds, Qu said. Other applicable rules have been ignored by companies that built factories with ponds in remote areas of northwest China with thin regulatory oversight.

Evaporation ponds have never received the kind of close attention with which environmental regulators in China commonly scrutinize other types of emissions-related factory facilities.

The situation may change soon. Caixin has learned that regulators at the National Energy Administration have finished a first draft for proposed standards that would govern evaporation pool construction and wastewater processing. Details have yet to be released.

Qu has recommended regulators set parameters for pond sizes, locations, and water-quality levels. For example, to encourage evaporation, he said, ponds should be built only in very arid areas.

The idea that coal and chemical factories could use ponds to achieve zero-emissions goals gained popularity in the 1990s after the central government vowed to do more to control pollution. Ever since, a variety of coal-fired power, dying, chemical, and paper-making factory owners have touted their zero-emissions efforts.

By embracing the zero-emissions concept, companies and the government agencies that back them have dodged the central government's increasingly strict environmental rules. Coal and chemical processors have particularly taken advantage of this work-around while benefiting from the country's ever-rising demand for natural gas, oil, and coal.

The very idea that a factory can operate without emissions "is a technological 'miracle' concocted by various special interests," a source said. "Everyone knows it's difficult to achieve. But how can any project get off the ground without it?"

Bad Track Record

The country's largest coal mining company, Shenhua Group, was the first out of the gate with a zero-emissions, coal-oil conversion project in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, in 2004. Other companies soon followed. And by 2010, zero-emissions goals had been declared for 15 of 27 chemical projects completed and planned along the upper-to-middle reaches of the Yellow River.

That same year, environmental groups and local media in some communities started focusing on the flaws and dangers of evaporation ponds. The environmental group Greenpeace took aim at Shenhua in 2013 after testing water from a pond at the Ordos facility and finding high levels of pollutants.

After problems at Tengger were exposed, Alashan-area officials continued to insist for months that the ponds posed no danger. After the central government stepped in, though, the industrial park got an overhaul.

All of the Tengger park's ponds have been filled and some 15 companies had been forced to move out as of late September. The Xinhua News Agency reports that several local government officials with links to the ponds were punished.

A similar shake-up occurred in recent months near the Tengger site in the Ningxia city of Zhongwei, where several officials at the local environmental protection bureau were disciplined for backing similar ponds at the Zhongwei Industrial Park. However, so far the evaporation ponds have continued to operate.

In the town of Ulaan Tolgoi, in Inner Mongolia, six evaporation ponds covering a combined 240,000 square meters have filled the air with chemical fumes in communities near the Shilin chemical plant, which makes methanol from coal. The plant is controlled by Shandong Energy Zibo Mining Group.

An elderly couple living near the ponds said the fumes have been stinging the nostrils of residents ever since the plant opened in 2005. Complaints were filed with company and local officials, but to no avail. Over the years, they said, some relatives developed respiratory problems.

Similar health problems have been reported in the village of Yanggou, Shaanxi province. Six evaporation ponds hold effluent from the Yuheng Industrial Park, which is about 100 meters from the village's source of drinking water.

Many villagers linked their coughing and a tight feeling in their chests to the fumes from the ponds.

Area environmental officials investigated the ponds following media reports about villagers with health issues. They found some problems with the ponds, but none related to pollution. Villagers said that as of October the ponds were operating, but that new water-treatment facilities had been installed.

Yao Huaizhang, head of the environmental protection office at the Yuheng park, said the ponds pose no pollution threat. Moreover, he said, because of the ponds the park is among only a few in China that has achieved its zero-emissions goal for wastewater.

In October, members of an environmental organization called Chongqing Liangjiang Voluntary Service Center ran water pollution tests at several evaporation ponds next to industrial parks in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Most showed excessive levels of pollutants.

But shortly after Xi signed the central government order, according to Chongqing Liangjiang, several companies whose facilities had been tested closed and filled their evaporation ponds.