Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Environmental regulation, Chinese style

Even casual readers of news from China (I'm one) are familiar with the difficulty the central government experiences in trying to enforce environmental regulations in the provinces, where local officials respond to legitimate and illegitimate incentives to juice the local economy -- often by winking at illegal or noncompliant mines and factories.

Today's FT reports on a crackdown in China against the illegal mining of antinomy, a rare metal used in fire retardants, of which China produces 90% of the world's supply. The story nicely illustrates both the effects of weak regulation and the Chinese style of getting tough.

First, the status quo as it's played out in Lengshuijiang, an antimony-producing region of Hunan province:

Years of indiscriminate mining have stripped the area’s lush vegetation, turning it into a moonscape of naked dirt and mine tailings, or leftovers.

One small child was seen playing among the toxic refuse when the Financial Times visited.
His face and body was covered in dust.

Five hundred families have been moved from homes that nestle between piles of ore tailings that rise high above their roofs.

“The sky is always grey here,” one resident, who grew up on Xikuangshan, a nearby hill where antimony mining is concentrated, says.

Local officials do not release figures for cancer deaths due to antimony-related air pollution, but nor do they try to hide the fact that local residents report a high rate of lung cancer.
 Then, the crackdown:
Beijing has managed to get its way in Lengshuijiang, to a degree that is rare in the rest of the country, where green edicts often fall on deaf ears.

Lengshuijiang had been under pressure for years to clean up, but last year Beijing declared the city one of 44 “natural resource exhausted cities”.

Wen Jiabao, premier, visited Hunan to drive home the point: time to get serious on the environment.

The execution of a couple of local government officials who took bribes from illegal mines in another Hunan city and a Lengshuijiang mine accident in which 26 miners died, clinched the matter.

Tong Fangping, a professor at the Hunan Institute of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, says: “One hundred per cent of illegal mines have been closed and not reopened. Government supervision is very strict.”

I imagine we'll see more of such regulatory execution(s).

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