Chinese metal mines feed global demand for gadgets and poison country’s poorest regions

Gerry Shih

DACHANG, CHINA (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Day and night, overfilled trucks rumble over Nanjiu Road in the saw-toothed hills that stretch to the Vietnam border. It’s a procession at the heart of one of China’s most hazardous industries.

The trucks load up on metal ore in the valley below, where 13 miners died in October in underground shafts laden with tin, copper and zinc. Then the trucks motor up the mountain toward belching smelters – the culprit, researchers said, behind arsenic levels in Dachang’s dust reaching more than 100 times the government limit.

Across southern China – far from the affluent coasts and Beijing’s gaze – a vast metals industry has fed the country’s manufacturing boom and sated global demand for components used in products from smartphone batteries to electric motors to jet airframes.

China’s production of a basket of metals such as aluminum, copper, lead and zinc, known as base or nonferrous metals, has soared as the country has become the world’s factory floor. Combined output was 57 million tonnes last year, up from six million in 1998, according to the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association.

But some of the country’s most isolated, impoverished communities are paying the price.

In Guangxi, a balmy southern region that has some of China’s most concentrated mineral deposits, large tracts of farmland lay wasted by run-off carrying cadmium and lead. Metal miners toil in shafts deadlier than China’s notorious coal pits.

Villagers roll up their sleeves to show deformities caused by ingesting food contaminated by heavy metals. Residents wait daily for shipments of fresh water.

In the past decade, China’s top leaders have steadily tightened regulations on the metals industry, including introducing the country’s first soil pollution law last year.

After an eight-year study that began as a state secret, the Chinese government said in 2014 that 20 per cent of the country’s farmland was contaminated and a third of its surface water unfit for human contact. Top officials said last month that they had set aside USD4 billion to clean up contaminated soil – similar to the United States (US) Superfund – yet it’s a fraction of the USD1 trillion that some Chinese experts predict is needed.

A review of soil and water data, interviews with environmental researchers, and a 500-mile journey through Guangxi illustrated how the sheer financial cost is a small part of the challenge facing China.

“Central leaders may have a great vision,” said Song Guojun, a former environmental-protection official who studies policy at Renmin University. “But at the local level, there is no transparency, no upward accountability, no money.”

As a result, metal producers appear to operate with a degree of impunity – and leave a toxic trail – as they transform crude mountain ore into the essential nuggets of modern life. There are zinc slabs for coating steel, copper cathodes for wires and transformers, and grains of nickel matte, a step in making purified nickel used in batteries and other products.

From his soot-smeared home on Nanjiu Road, Wei Shujian has watched the trucks multiply since the 1970s.

“They are unstoppable,” the farmer growled, wheezing from an incurable lung disease caused by dirty air. Wei nodded toward the hillside, where a huge elevator reached deep into the source of fortune and grief: the mines.

Meng was sitting deep underground at the end of a 1,000-yard-long mineshaft, waiting to start his shift about 7pm on October 28, when the damp air was blasted by a shock wave.

Meng fled in a trolley to the surface, where he listened to the groaning earth: A branch of the Qingda number two tin mine had collapsed. State media later said two miners were confirmed dead and 11 “had no chance of survival” inside the mine, about 10 miles north of Dachang.

Twenty years ago, Chinese coal miners had, statistically speaking, the deadliest job on Earth. Today, more metal miners are dying – 484 in 2017 – than their coal worker counterparts, according to the most up-to-date government data.

That’s partly because China’s coal mine safety has improved significantly under pressure from Beijing. But less attention has been paid to the metal industry, where about 83 per cent of outfits are small and loosely run.