It’s unusual for environmental activists to be upbeat, especially when the subject is China. But in the central China province of Henan, where economic growth normally takes precedence over pollution control, activist Huo Daishan is finding a lot to be cheerful about these days.
The Huai River, which flows through Huo’s hometown of Shenqiu, is notorious for how polluted it is. In 2004, the Chinese government estimated that 60% of its water was unsuitable for drinking, farming, or industrial use. But this year, Huo says, the pollution is far less obvious to the naked eye. Huo believes it’s partly because a major food ingredients producer that discharges into the river has notably reduced its emissions. Conditions have improved so much that fewer farmers are becoming ill in the villages around Shenqiu, says Huo, a regular visitor to the villages around the town.
“This winter, the pollution was not as obvious as in past years when they opened the sluice gates,” Huo says. The Huai River is prone to flooding, and numerous dams have been set up to control its flow. When the sluice gates are closed, Huo says, industrial pollution accumulates in the Huai’s tributaries, something that can be seen and smelled. The gates are usually opened in winter when the water level rises.
It once appeared an impossible task to clean up the Huai, China’s third-largest river. In 2007, China’s government admitted that an all-out effort to reduce pollution in the river had failed. Several tributaries of the Huai were in even worse shape. Villagers along a river named the Shaying were suffering from alarmingly high rates of cancer, possibly because the well water residents were drinking was contaminated—the wells they draw water from are typically only about 30 feet deep. Last month, lab tests conducted by the nongovernment organization Greenovation Hub showed that well water near the Shaying contains high levels of fluoride, sodium, and aluminum.
In the past, Huo blamed Lotus Gourmet Powder, a local producer of monosodium glutamate and fertilizers, for causing most of the pollution in the Shaying. Local authorities also identified Lotus, one of China’s largest MSG producers, as a major polluter. In 2003, the provincial government fined the company $1.2 million for violating emissions standards.
Over the past two years, Lotus has markedly improved its environmental performance, Huo says. “Lotus started to become serious about their environmental emissions after 2008,” he asserts. Chinese “consumers became aware of the environmental impact of this company and began reducing their consumption of MSG.”
One of the major improvements Lotus put in place was to use part of the wastewater from the MSG production process to make fertilizers. By reducing the amount of water generated by its operations, Lotus is now able to treat all of it, Huo claims. In the past, he says, the company illegally discharged raw wastewater into the Shaying.
In China, MSG is produced by fermenting corn to make glutamic acid, which is then neutralized, says Chris Wu, spokesman for CCM International, a Guangzhou-based consulting firm focused on the chemical, life sciences, and agricultural sectors. Wastewater from the fermentation contains plant nutrients that can be harmful if released to the environment untreated.
Lotus has always paid close attention to environmental issues, says Huabin Yuan, the firm’s head of environmental protection. The company’s newest slogan, he notes, is “Protecting the environment is life.” During a tour of the company’s wastewater treatment plant, Yuan claims that all liquid emissions are processed before being released into the environment.
To support his claim, Yuan points to fish living in a tank of clear treated water that Lotus maintains. Yuan is evasive on whether the company has always treated all its emissions, but he notes that using wastewater to produce fertilizers has improved Lotus’ environmental performance.
Huo’s group, the Huai River Protectors, has lobbied Lotus since 2005 to improve its environmental profile, Huo recounts. The group’s efforts gained traction after 2008 when China promulgated a law that improves citizen access to environmental data, Huo says (C&EN, March 5, page 24). The law makes it easier for citizens to pressure local governments to crack down on polluters, he notes.
But even if Lotus sharply improves its environmental performance, it will take time for the quality of well water to improve in the villages around Shenqiu. In an effort to reduce the high cancer rates in the area, the Huai River Protectors have installed in local villages 22 water purification units using the low-cost slow-sand filtration method. This year, the group hopes to install 50 more such systems in the area.
Since 2008, the Huai River Protectors have seen improvements in an area known for its high cancer rates. But Huo says it’s just a beginning, as local environmental authorities have relied only on chemical oxygen demand to evaluate pollution abatement programs. He hopes they will also start to measure and control toxic substances such as heavy metals in the water supply.