Farmland flooded by toxic sludge from smelter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am

A huge wave of toxic sludge from an illegal aluminium smelter has flooded large areas of farmland on the border between Qingyuan and Zhaoqing cities in Guangdong, affecting the livelihood of tens of thousands of people.

Xinhua reported around 4,500 cubic metres toxic sludge leaked to rivers and waterways in the fields.

All the fish in a local river were killed when the wastewater reservoir of the aluminium ash factory, which processes residues from aluminium refining, burst on Monday, the Guangdong-based Nanfang Daily reported yesterday. Citing local witnesses, the newspaper said up to 1,000 mu (66.6 hectares) of farmland in at least three villages along the Baima river may have been affected by the spill.

Chen Guixiang, a Communist Party chief at Baimang village, one of the worst-hit villages, recalled the horrific scene when a torrent of foul-smelling water and toxic sludge rushed down a hill where the factory was located and flooded his village and several others.

The reservoir breached when the factory owner tried to repair the dyke, the report said.

The smelter sat right on the border between Qingxin county in Qingyuan city and Zhaoqing city's Guangning county.

But the newspaper's report was denied by local authorities in both Qingyuan and Zhaoqing, who insisted the incident and its impact had been grossly exaggerated.

Ouyang Jie, the chief of the environmental watchdog in Guangning county, told the South China Morning Post that only three to four mu of farmland in his county had been contaminated.

'The pollution caused by the collapse of the dyke is far less severe than the report stated,' said the official, who helped investigate the incident. 'We have yet to find any trace of heavy metal in the contaminated areas according to tests carried out by provincial environmental authorities.'

According to the report, the factory, which did not even have a proper name, had been allowed to operate next to a provincial highway since September without approval or mandatory environmental assessment.

Local villagers have complained about toxic air and land pollution caused by the discharges of wastewater containing mainly aluminium.

But authorities in both Qingyuan and Zhaoqing have turned a deaf ear to their grievances, saying the smelter was not under either of their respective jurisdictions.

Indeed, authorities in the two cities were still squabbling over who should be responsible for the incident and its clean-up, despite their joint efforts at playing it down.

While an official at the environmental watchdog in Qingxin county said it was not fair that her county had to bear consequences of the pollution caused by a factory in Guangning county, Ouyang Jie said the opposite. 'The factory does not belong to Guangning although it's on our border, but most of the farmland affected is ours,' he said.

Factories processing aluminium ash have been outlawed by the central government for years, but the border area has become a haven for the illegal business, attracting dozens of small smelters, the report said.