China’s Urban Sludge Dilemma: Sinking in Stink; Trucks are dumping sludge on melon fields near Beijing, highlighting a nationwide struggle with waste

08.08.2013 16:12

China’s Urban Sludge Dilemma: Sinking in Stink

Trucks are dumping sludge on melon fields near Beijing, highlighting a nationwide struggle with waste

By staff reporter Cui Zheng and intern reporter Liu Zhiyi

Promptly at noon on March 17, a heavy truck hauling a dark substance and on a dark mission pulled out of the Gaobeidian Wastewater Treatment Plant in eastern Beijing. A wastewater treatment engineer helped a Caixin reporter identify the unusual load, which jiggled in the truck’s bed like gelatin as the driver headed down a bumpy road. The substance was unprocessed sludge – a mucky, smelly and hazardous byproduct of the sewage treatment process. Anything less disgusting coming out of the Gaobeidian plant, the engineer said, would not have jiggled. Gaobeidian is one of the largest wastewater plants in China and the biggest in Beijing, serving the capital’s downtown business district and industrial zones along with about 2.4 million household residents. It handles some 40 percent of Beijing’s wastewater, and has a daily wastewater capacity of about 1 million cubic meters. The plant is one of many built over the past seven years as part of a 500 million yuan, central government push to upgrade wastewater treatment nationwide. The investment has shown some good results: The collective sewage treatment capacity in China’s counties, for example, has risen to more than 70 percent.What’s been overlooked so far, however, is the need to complement water scrubbing with modern sludge disposal systems that protect the environment and human health.

More than ever, wastewater plants are discharging relatively safe effluent into China’s rivers, lakes and seas. But they’re often leaving sludge untreated, forcing plant operators at Gaobeidian and elsewhere to truck it away.

Where do truckers take these gooey loads of organic materials, bacteria, heavy metals and micro-organisms? A Caixin investigation found sludge from Gaobeidian has been hauled two hours away to a Hebei Province farming area and renamed “fertilizer” before being dumped on fields where corn and watermelons are grown.

Caixin followed the sludge-hauling truck bearing Beijing license plate number AK7834 and with a yellow, Gaobeidian plant tag on the windshield as the driver left the pavement at a farm in Guanjiawu Township, Yongqing County, Langfang Prefecture.

The driver steered off-road through the barren field for a few hundred meters before stopping, lifting the rear bed hatch and dumping the stinky sludge onto the bare ground.

Another truck of the same make and markings, also with a Gaobeidian windshield tag, was seen around the same time heading in the opposite direction, empty.

Residents of Anyu village who work the farm and other fields nearby later said they were told the dark substance carried by trucks was fertilizer. They also said trucks from Beijing had been depositing similar loads locally for at least two years. The dumping coincided with a village farm collective’s decision to let a non-local contractor take over management of the farm.

“Over the past two or three years, big trucks with Beijing plates have come and dumped mud,” said one villager. “We thought it was a special fertilizer that the land contractor was buying.”

A biting stench in the village air, however, conflicted with the fertilizer explanation. The area scene from the road was of soft, black sludge spread across dozens of hectares waiting for a plow. In other fields, the sludge had already been plowed under.

“These past two years, corn and watermelons have been planted on the land with the ‘fertilizer,'” the villager said. “The watermelons grew well enough, but their flavor was mediocre. Locals didn’t eat them but sold them elsewhere.”

About three months later, on June 24, Caixin returned to find clouds of flies in a reeking miasma over fields where corn plants had started poking through sludge-contaminated soil. These visits were part of a wide-ranging investigation by Caixin that determined:

— Sludge from Gaobeidian was dumped on dozens of hectares where Anyu villagers grow corn, and several hundred hectares of fields in Beijing Municipality’s Huo County, Tongzhou District. These farms have also grown melons and vegetables in the sludge-tainted soil.

— Untreated sludge has also been trucked from the Qinghe Wastewater Treatment Plant on Beijing’s northwest side and dumped in woods and on fields in the Shunyi District’s village of Mulin. Peanuts have been grown in some fields.

— Sludge that sources say came from the Xiaohongmen Wastewater Treatment Plant in southern Beijing has been dumped on dozens of hectares of woodland in the municipality’s Daxing District.

— Sludge from the Jiuxianqiao Wastewater Treatment Plant in northeast Beijing has been dumped in forests and on agricultural land in Daxing District’s town of Caiyu. Sludge has been plowed under on dozens of hectares.

— Altogether, Caixin confirmed the regular use of five sludge dumping sites and two transportation routes traveled by trucks from Beijing wastewater plants.

A source close to the Beijing Drainage Group, a municipal government corporation that runs the city’s sewage treatment plants, told Caixin that most of Beijing’s untreated sludge has been dumped in rural areas for years, first at mining sites and later on farm fields.

“Years ago, gravel pits or abandoned mine shafts were sought out,” the source said. “In recent years, dump sites have gotten farther away, some even as far as Hebei Province.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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