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Lessons from the Tiger

Feb 14, 2011

If one word could sum up China’s environmental events of the Year of the Tiger, it would be “leak”. At the beginning of 2010, a diesel leak from the Weinan branch of a China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) pipeline contaminated the Yellow River. On July 3, Zijin Mining leaked waste water into the Ting River. July 17 saw an oil pipeline in Dalian explode and pollute the surrounding ocean. And, on October 22, a smelting plant in Shaoguan, in south China, released 300 kilograms of thalium into the Bei River.

The global community was also in on the act: in June, the BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico became the year’s worst environmental disaster. All of these leaks can be traced back to major failings in management and supervision.

The companies concerned are, of course, directly responsible for these disasters. But pollution is rarely caused by just one incident – it is the result of a process. Only when pollution accumulates to a certain degree do its effects become visible. Although it sounds like the events listed above occurred suddenly, in fact they were all linked to management failures that had built up over time.

Zijin Mining for example has been polluting the Ting River for years, and this particular incident took place nine days before the company owned up to it. Its first reaction was not to inform the environmental authorities or take measures to stop the leak, but to impose a news blackout and organise a cover-up, making the actual situation even worse.

Most of the environmental accidents of 2010 involved state-owned energy and mining firms. It is clear that the management styles of these companies are out of date, their systems lack early warning signals and they have no concern for the public interest. In this sense, pollution in China is not merely a natural consequence of economic growth, but rather the result of a series of human errors.

Read full article here

Tang Hao is an deputy professor at South China Normal University, a Fulbright scholar and columnist.

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