Villagers search for deadly rocket debris

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2010, 12:00am

In the mountains of northern Guizhou, tens of thousands of villagers have been mobilised to perform a task none of them wants to do: collect rocket debris. They have been told some of the debris is dangerous, polluted by a deadly chemical called unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, or UDMH. It is a yellowish liquid with a fishy smell that can be absorbed through the skin and cause cancer.

The villagers, who must find every piece of debris and carry it out of the jungle, will be paid a modest amount - but they do not have the option to stay home. It is a political order.

On Sunday morning, a Long March rocket blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in nearby Sichuan to send aloft the third satellite in the country's homegrown navigational network, Beidou. About seven minutes later, the first stage of the rocket dropped into the mountains around Jiucang village.

Before the launch, the Office of Civilian Air Defence in Guizhou ordered more than 100,000 villagers in the area of Renhuai township, including Jiucang as well as three other villages nearby, to go outside and monitor the sky, according to a communications officer who identified himself only with the surname Chen.

As soon as the office received reports of an explosion or fire, it ordered cadres of nearby villages to mobilise farmers to search for the debris, Chen said.

'We visit every village every year to make sure every family is well informed about the danger of the mission,' he said. 'We have told them the deadly effect of the chemical. Now most farmers living in the landing zone know to keep their distance when they spot debris.

'But many times the debris drops in a remote location in some deep forest. There is no way to retrieve it with machines. We have no other choice but to rely on the hands and shoulders of farmers to transport debris to a more accessible location. Farmers are usually co-operative. They normally get several hundred yuan in compensation.'

According to a report by the official Guizhou Daily last month, more than two million residents in seven cities have been mobilised to complete more than 50 recovery missions in the past two decades. No one could be reached to talk about the perils of the recent mission.

Chen did not explain how the office persuaded farmers to do the job, but he said a government regulation gave it the authorisation to mobilise them. Also, the top leadership of the provincial government had offered its full support.

'This is a political mission, according to an internal document of the Communist Party Committee of Guizhou,' Chen said.

The first stage of Sunday's rocket held more than 170 tonnes of fuel, about half of which was UDMH. Though most of the fuel was burned during the launch, remnants that fell to the ground could still be highly toxic, some rocket experts said.

The United States banned UDMH in the early 1980s and Russia a decade later. It is not only environmentally hazardous but very dangerous to handle. Accidental explosions and poisonings by UDMH are the biggest killer in the mainland's aerospace programmes, according to a rocket expert who refused to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Zhang Pengyi, a professor in the department of environmental science and engineering at Tsinghua University, said UDMH did not break down easily.

He said his team had cautioned space authorities a few years ago about UDMH's environmental hazards but had received no response.

'UDMH's chemical structure is stable. It needs a strong oxidiser to break down. There are very few strong oxidisers in nature, so it can remain in the environment for a long period,' Zhang said. 'UDMH is also highly soluble in water. If it rains, the soil and water near the debris will be contaminated.'

Rocket debris has been one of the biggest headaches surrounding the mainland's space programme, according to Professor Jiao Weixin, a space scientist at Peking University.

Space scientists still had difficulty pinning down the exact landing zone of rocket debris, Jiao said. Because it fell from a great height, even a gentle wind could change its course significantly. Jiao said the central government was considering closing the Xichang centre because rockets fired from there flew over densely populated provinces, such as Guizhou.

A new launch centre is being built in Hainan . Once construction is completed, most of Xichang's launch missions will be moved there, and the debris hazard will vanish because the rockets' entire flight paths will be over the ocean.

A new rocket that uses hydrogen as fuel instead of UDMH was also being developed, Jiao said.

But the new launch centre is not scheduled for completion until 2013, and the new rocket won't be used regularly before 2014.

In the meantime, the national space programme has expanded, with more satellite launches from Sichuan. That means more debris for the Guizhou villagers to collect and more lives at risk.