South China Villagers Slam Pollution From Rare Earth Mine

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Guangdong farmland. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—Villagers in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong are battling an illegal rare earth mine in their neighborhood which they say has poisoned the local water supply and wiped out their fish-farm stock and rice crops.

Around 600 residents of Shangmankeng village, near Heyuan city in the northeastern part of the province, have had their lives devastated by severe pollution from the mine, according to one campaigner, identified only by his surname, Li.

“Local officials, corporations, and triads [Chinese criminal organizations] are all in cahoots on this, otherwise this project would never have gotten off the ground,” Li told RFA’s Cantonese service.

'We can't work'

“The rice crop that was already sown has totally failed. We can’t work. The water supply we depend on for drinking water isn’t reliable. We can’t use water for our day-to-day needs, like fish-farming. There are no fish left now,” he said.

Uranium is radioactive, and harmful to human health. All heavy metals but especially the radioactive ones, are harmful to all forms of life.

“They have all died. Every single one, in a reservoir measuring tens of thousands of cubic meters of water.”

China is one of the world’s biggest producers of the “rare earth” category of metals, which include cerium, thulium, and lanthanum, and are often found in deposits alongside uranium ore.

Illegal mining for the lucrative minerals, which are used to manufacture high-tech goods, is a massive environmental problem around Heyuan, where the authorities say they staged a major crackdown in October, closing 462 illegal iron and rare earth mines.

Last February, the Shangmankeng village committee handed over management of the village reservoir, on which villagers depend for irrigation, fish-farming, and drinking water, to three villagers who are known to have triad connections, Li said.

At the same time, the authorities put out a tender notice in the name of Shangmankeng village and the nearby Dongyuan township to operate a rare earth mine in the village. Since then, the once clear waters of the village reservoir, which were also used as a fish farm, have come to resemble a pool of sewage.

Li is just one of the villagers who are vehemently opposed to the mine. Government scientists discovered the uranium, which is used to make nuclear weapons, under the hill near the village back in 1981, and they sealed it off, forbidding anyone from mining there. Now that they have begun work there, large volumes of mud have flowed into the village reservoir, some of it radioactive, he said.

Beaten by thugs

He said the villagers had been writing to the township government, the city government, and the provincial government about the problem for the last year, but to no avail. Li and his family have left their homes in Shangmankeng because of the pollution, fearing for their health.

His continuing campaign against the mine had brought a vicious beating for him and his son by government-hired thugs, he said.

“We went back to the village and shot some digital camera photos and some video. They found out that we were shooting video and called me to say that they would beat me to death and never leave me alone for shooting those photos and video,” Li said.

“They have ruined our reservoir, and there is no more water. Some people went to the township government to complain, [and] the officials there thought I was out to cause trouble, so they sent about 10 people to beat me up.”

“They came on five motorbikes, and they had piping in their hands. My son would be dead today if he hadn’t been saved by the shopkeeper next door. They said that if we went back to the village again we’d get beaten again—one beating for every trip. They are triads so they just beat you up if you don’t agree with them,” he said.

Officials who answered the phone at the land and resources bureaus of both the Heyuan municipal government and the Dongyuan township government said they were unaware of the situation and declined to comment.

Heavy runoff

Heyuan’s Dongjiang River is one of the sources from which neighboring Hong Kong buys its water. Chan Yu-fai, who manages a water quality-testing project in Heyuan for the Hong Kong-based environmental group Greenpeace, said the problem of illegal mining in the Heyuan area was very serious and had resulted in a lot of runoff of rare earth and sand from the mines into nearby rivers.

“Uranium is radioactive, and harmful to human health. All heavy metals [including rare earth elements], but especially the radioactive ones, are harmful to all forms of life,” Chan said, although he was unable to say which mines contained uranium deposits.

“The radioactive ones can cause genetic mutations, and it accumulates in the tissues of plants and animals,” he said.

Heyuan municipal Party secretary Chen Jianhua has called for “heavy measures to deal with chaos,” according to an official media report in October.

Of the 462 illegal mines closed by the authorities, 220 were rare earth mines, employing 4,700 workers. A total of 25 people were detained during the course of the investigations, the official Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News said.

Powerful interests

The article detailed a range of measures including fast-tracking cases, using the Internet to investigate transgressions, and ensuring that there are real consequences for those responsible.

Among those targeted would be township Party secretaries and township mayors and section and bureau chiefs in the relevant department. At the same time, Chen called for environmental licensing, re-greening, and assessment services in the relevant areas to be stepped up, the paper said.

Municipal leaders had been dispatched to five different counties around the city with a brief to continue the investigations and to bring the exploitation of natural resources back into line, the paper said.

China produces the vast majority of the world’s rare earth elements, which are needed for high-tech manufacturing processes. It also consumed around 60 percent of the 108,000 tonnes of rare earth oxides consumed globally in 2006, while the U.S. used around 10 percent.

Global demand for rare earth elements is forecast to grow by between 9 percent and 11 percent per year over the next few years. China’s domestic demand is expected to match its own supply by 2012, causing upward pressure on prices.

Original reporting by Lee Yong-tim for RFA’s Cantonese service. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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