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Can China’s ‘Leather Capital’ Repay Its Environmental Debts?

By Zhou Chen, Kong Lingyu and Li Sijia

It is late February, and in Hebei province’s Gaomiao village, 65-year-old Xue Jiamin hoes land along the northern bank of the Hutuo River.

Xue is worried about his corn. The wells in Gaomiao are almost 100 meters deep, but the water they provide is black and foamy. Five years of applications to the local government to build a new well have been fruitless.

About 100 meters downstream, a group of workers are installing tubes to pump out the river’s water, so black and thick it is better described as sludge, and treat it with a coagulating powder to separate out pollutants, before pumping it back into the river.

Their work is part of a vast and complex provincial project that began last year in response to a central investigation led by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It found that levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen with many industrial uses, were five times greater than the government standard in soil samples collected in the city of Xinji, along the Hutuo’s southern bank in Hebei.

The investigation results added a new level of urgency to environmental work in the province, and now officials are scrambling to rectify decades of environmental degradation. In September, the Hebei provincial party secretary, Zhao Kezhi, directly addressed the issue, vowing to “let the sun shine once again on the Hutuo River.”

In Xinji, at least, it seems the time to recognize and repay the environmental debts of China’s rapid industrial development has finally come.

Xinji is known as China’s “leather capital,” and its leather industry has been dumping unfiltered wastewater into the river for decades. The city has resorted to drastic measures to revive the river, halting all leather production nearly a year ago to make sure all facilities are equipped with waste-treatment plants.

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But the damage is staggering. According to Zhen Hongwei, an environmental official in downstream Wuji county, flood-control projects in the 1950s left the river without any surface runoff. Now 90% of the water flowing in the river is industrial wastewater.

Local officials are drowning in the sludge that years of unchecked development have left behind. “We spend more than 80% of our time addressing old environmental debts,” Wang Yunchuang, head of pollution control at Xinji’s Environmental Protection Bureau, told Caixin.

And the high cost of waste treatment means savvy polluters, small and large, continue to skirt detection, some going so far as to dump their wastewater from moving cars to avoid leaving a pipe trail. With the incentive to pollute still so high, can this growing environmental debt ever be repaid?

Dried Up and Filled With Waste

The 587-km-long Hutuo River once flowed east from Shanxi province, through Hebei, and into the ocean in Tianjin. It was known as the mother river of Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s capital and largest city. Over 6 million people still live along the Hutuo’s banks.

Seventy-year-old Li Shaozhou remembers fondly how sweet the river’s groundwater tasted. When he first moved to Wuji county’s Qiqia village over 40 years ago, only a small well was needed to extract the fresh water. Now villagers don’t even dare drink water from 100-meter-deep wells. Li remembers one instance recently where he was so thirsty from working in the fields that he couldn’t help but take a sip of the well water. He said he nearly choked.

The river’s gradual decline began in 1958, when two reservoirs were built upstream to combat flooding. The water flow to the river was cut and it slowly dried up until it was no more than a broad beach.

Beginning in the 1980s, private enterprises began to spring up along the river. The factories, whose products included leather, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and pesticides, were attracted by the high permeability of the sandy banks that made it easier to dump wastewater. Soon the dried-up river was once again flowing, but this time with noxious sludge.

After more than 30 years of nonstop pollution, the river is unrecognizable. According to a 2015 study of surface water samples taken 5 to 500 meters from the river in Wuji county, levels of pollutants were astronomically higher than national standards. The study, conducted by the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, showed that total phosphorous content was 2,000 times the standard, cadmium levels were 40 times, mercury 60 times, and total chromium content was about 278 times the standard. Cadmium and mercury are toxic heavy metals that wreak havoc on human health.

The groundwater isn’t much better. A 2014 study from the same institute showed that 21.5% of groundwater samples did not meet national standards. The study showed that the closer the samples were to the river and its industrial activity, the more concentrated the pollution was.

Surrounding communities have been forced to dig deeper and deeper to find potable water. In 2005, a CCTV broadcast reported on a local government effort in the riverside county of Shenze to provide safe drinking water by digging a 300-meter-deep well. Two years after the report, villagers began suspecting the water’s safety when they noticed it turned red overnight. A test that year showed that four kinds of organic pollutants exceeded national standards; in 2013, that number had jumped to 10.

How Did It Get So Bad?

The Hutuo River plains are home to many different polluting industries, but leather dominates. Xinji’s origins as a tanning town date back over 3,000 years to the Shang Dynasty, when the city had already become a known source of the product.

But it was in the early 1980s that the nation’s reform and opening-up policies injected new life into the millennia-old trade. Former workers at the defunct state-owned tannery began to build small workshops in their homes. They purchased raw hides, mostly sheepskins, and processed the leather by hand.

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Wastewater produced by rinsing, plating and other small workshops is poured directly into the pit dug on the farmland, in Xinji, known as "China's leather city," in Hebei province, on Jan. 12. The vast plains are covered with the sludgy wastewater, which infiltrates the soil. Photo: Wang Xi and Zhang Jin/Caixin

At that time, people were unaware of the harmful side effects of the business; many even mixed their own chromium tanning liquid. “The gas reaction is not particularly hard on the throat; in fact, it tastes slightly sweet, but it is very dangerous to breathe,” a Xinji leather worker locals called “the veteran” told Caixin.

In the traditional tanning process, about 30% of the chromium tanning agent isn’t absorbed by the hides, meaning it is washed away with the wastewater. Besides the highly carcinogenic hexavalent chromium ions that form a small but significant portion of the discarded chromium, the wastewater also contains other byproducts of the leather production process, including animal fat and protein, acids, alkali, salt, sodium sulfide, lime, dyes and other hazardous substances.

For sheepskins, 200 to 300 liters of wastewater are produced for each finished piece. If 100,000 pieces were produced per day for 300 days out of the year, about 6.5 million tons of wastewater would be produced each year. Producers who lived close to the river would dump their water in the river; others dug pits in their backyards to dispose of the sewage.

According to “the veteran,” leather producers at that time were constantly rushing to fill a nonstop stream of orders. “Before you had even finished producing, people were fighting to put down deposits,” he said. At that time, leather producers could make 30 to 50 times the average local income in Xinji, he said. Demand was insatiable, and soon all the local farmers and small business owners had set up small-scale leather production shops in their backyards.

Between 1990 and 2012, China’s leather industry continued to boom, and the country quickly became one of the world’s largest leather producers. In 1993, Xinji’s Leather City industrial park consolidated the nearly 10,000 small-scale producers into a few larger-scale producers.

Between 2009 and 2011, domestic and international demand continued to surge, and prices reached a peak of 30 yuan a foot, three times the price today, according to a Xinji leather company executive surnamed Chen.

As the industry continued to expand and upgrade, environmental awareness still lagged behind, and waste was, for the most part, directly discharged into the environment.

Officials Can’t Keep Up

Part of the reason Xinji and the surrounding counties had been eager to consolidate their leather industries was to make the management of wastewater easier. In 1997, a wastewater treatment facility was built in Xinji’s Leather Park, and three years later, 138 million yuan ($16.7 million at the time) was invested to upgrade the capacity to 100,000 tons of wastewater a day.

But it still wasn’t enough. In 2014, Xinji’s wastewater chemical oxygen demand (COD) and ammonia nitrogen concentration levels were 2.89 and 3.91 times higher than national standards, according to the Hebei Provincial Environmental Protection Office.

Now the city is in the midst of a complete upgrading program. It has required all of the more than 100 producers in the industrial park to install wastewater treatment facilities. So far, over 60 have completed their rectification work and are up and running again.

But officials still have to deal with the toxic sites local tanneries have been using to dump their other waste. On the southeast corner of the industrial park lies a sprawling 60,000 square meter dumpsite. Xinji’s Environmental Protection Bureau estimates that rectification of the site will cost about 20 million yuan ($2.9 million). Nearby, two other pits have claimed around 100,000 square meters with their toxic sludge. Even more pits have been flattened and buried in the past two years, with the contaminants remaining in the soil.

Many environmental officials told Caixin that if they could resign, they would. Besides cleaning up the decades of accumulated pollution, officials find they are always one step behind savvy polluters, who will go to great lengths to avoid the costs of wastewater management. As soon as they shut down one illegal operation, another springs up.

Sources close to the leather industry told Caixin that as Henan province cracks down on pollution, some companies are hoarding their wastewater and shipping it to other provinces where enforcement is less strict.

And small companies and illicit household workshops continue to dig ditches and set up concealed pipes to get rid of waste, according to Zhao Xu, director of Leather City’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

“Unless someone reports them, who would know?” he asked.

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