Several models, wearing trousers made by global fashion leaders alleged to have been using harmful substances in their clothing process, are set up outside a sewage drain exit at the estuary of Hangzhou Bay on December 4. Photo: Courtesy of Greenpeace
It seems to be an endless fight for 44-year-old villager Wei Dongying. Having been fighting against the water pollution discharged from a nearby industrial zone for years, she now says she is giving up.
"It has been almost 20 years. The pollution is still there. What can we do? What's the use of appealing to them about environment protection? How many decades does one person have?" Wei asked.
Wei lives in a small county in the Xiaoshan district of Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province, one of China's most economically developed areas. She said the pollution began around 1997 when Nanyang Chemical Industry Zone, one of the earliest industry parks in Zhejiang Province, was established near her village. "Then everything changed as the air, soil and water all became polluted," she said.
It was January 20, 2004, when Wei first reported the damage to local environmental protection officials. She said that on her way to meet her fisherman husband who was returning late from a cruise, she saw untreated sewage being discharged into the river directly from nearby factories.
Wei soon linked this to heightened instances of cancer fatalities among locals in recent years.
Wei then embarked on a campaign to report the damage to all levels of environmental protection authorities and government. In her home, she collected bottles filled with multi-colored sewage collected from polluted rivers and has documented her quest with hundreds of pictures of the water spanning a decade.
"Each time, the environment protection authority showed up after the factories stopped the discharges. When I showed the pictures and water samples to officials, they said treatment did not remove water discoloration and the water was hot because of currents," Wei said.
"What can we do then since they explain everything away? Why are officials always helping them?" she asked.
Wei's home is in an area well-known for its textile industry, for which China is the world's largest producer and exporter. Nearby Shaoxing, known as "the city built on fabric," accounts for 30 percent of China's printing and dyeing capacity.
In 2002 and 2003, two major industrial parks - Linjiang Industry Zone in Hangzhou's Xiaoshan district and Binhai Industrial Zone in Shaoxing were established close to Wei's home.
Planned as an international textile manufacturing center, the total planning areas of the two zones respectively occupied 160 and 63 square kilometers area along the Qiantang River and its estuary in Hangzhou Bay. The area is now home to more than 300 major textile companies' headquarters and production facilities.
A report published by Greenpeace last week claimed toxic and carcinogenic substances had been found in water samples collected at sewage drain exit points for the industrial zones' centralized sewage treatment plant.
"Over the past few years we have checked hundreds of factories and industrial zones across China, but this discovery was the most shocking," Li Yifang, the Greenpeace program manager who led the investigation, told the Global Times.
As the most famous "environment protection fighter" in the area, Wei was interviewed by Greenpeace in October. After she showed her collection of multicolored sewage bottles and pictures, Li and her team became even more certain their discovery was no coincidence.
According to Li, the two sewage drain exit points discharge nearly 1 million tons of toxic waste water into the Qiantang River every day. Greenpeace accuses the companies of disguising the sheer amount of pollutants that are being pumped into the sea.
Li said test results from the laboratory at Exeter University in the UK showed the discharged sewage contained many harmful chemicals including carcinogenic materials such as aromatic amines, nitrobenzene and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which can long remain present in the environment and are difficult to eradicate.
However, both the Shaoxing and Xiaoshan environmental protection bureaus have denied the charges made by the Greenpeace report.
"All wastewater discharged from our sewage treatment plant meets national standards," said Jin Guorong, head of environmental protection for Binhai Industrial Zone.
However, Jin admitted some of the harmful substances listed in the Greenpeace report were not included in current national emission standards and that current inspection technology was incapable of detecting them.
A government announcement released last Thursday said strict inspection and monitoring measures were in place at all factories along the river. It stated that each enterprise had a wastewater quota it was allowed to discharge monthly and that those exceeding this would be severely punished.
Meanwhile, officials also stated that according to recent figures, instances of cancer in Shaoxing were lower than the average for Zhejiang Province. They denied any evidence of the area having become a "cancer village."
"I promise you all sewage we treat and discharge is within standards," Tong Lifeng, the general manger of Xiaoshan Linjiang sewage treatment plant, said to the Global Times. His plant is responsible for treating some 280,000 tons of industrial sewage from Linjiang Industrial Zone daily.
But Tong admitted there was still a lot to do to satisfy locals. "The treated sewage water is still sewage. It can't be as clean as fresh water. The national standard states that if sewage water is colorless after 80 dilutions, then it is acceptable," he explained.
"It is unfair to blame us. Sewage treatment plants are not omnipotent. We can't eliminate all complicated chemicals produced by different industries," Tong said, adding that his plant would not be taking on extra measures because of the Greenpeace report.
Back to the source
Greenpeace later published a reply to the government announcement. "We agree that end-of-pipe treatment cannot solve the problem fundamentally. Instead, finding the source of the pollutants and stopping it is the way out," Li from Greenpeace told the Global Times.
At a Greenpeace early report published in November 20, it stated some 20 well-known fashion brands including Abercrombie & Fitch, adidas, Benetton, Bestseller, C&A, Coop, Esprit, Gap, G Star Raw, Guess, H&M, Levi Strauss, Limited Brands, Metersbonwe, Nike, PPR, PVH, Uniqlo, VFC, WalMart, and Zara (Inditex) had used similar harmful substances in their clothing manufacturing, traces of it which could be found on their products.
Greenpeace later wrote to these companies to inform them of their probe into the Linjiang and Binhai Industrial Zones, asking them to notify Greenpeace if they had any transactions with companies in these two industrial zones.
"We hope these giants can use their influence on manufacturers to set an example on how to eliminate harmful substances from production," Li said.
From the few replies received, Levi Strauss confirmed they worked with Zhejiang Huili Dyeing and Finishing in Linjiang. Inditex also admitted to having several subcontractors in the area.
Meanwhile, Hangzhou Jimay Printing & Dyeing and Hangzhou Xinsheng Printing & Dyeing located in Linjiang claimed on their official websites that they were long-term suppliers for many of the brands listed above.
Huili refused to be interviewed for this story while Xinsheng and Jimay said they did not use the harmful substances mentioned by Greenpeace in their production.
"We have been wronged. All the chemical materials we use in production met with safety standards and we also passed an international test for harmful substances according to Oeko-Tex Standard 100 in Zurich (a textile industry certification system)," Li Guoxing, general manger of Xinsheng told the Global Times.
Pan Renchang, president of Jimay, said he "welcomed anyone to come to our factories to check our production process at anytime," said.
But both Li and Pan suggested they didn't exclude the possibility of other factories or industries using such substances.
According to the report, Greenpeace found all factories in the two industrial zones were now required to discharge their wastewater to a centralized sewage plant, where all sewage will be treated.
"The intention of this move is to prevent any factories discharging sewage into the river privately. But it also makes it difficult to find out what kind of specific pollutants each factory discharges. It thus causes a loophole for some factories to abuse of some harmful substances during their production," Li Yifang said.
She added that Greenpeace is appealing for all textile industries to reveal what chemical substances they use production in order to track down and eliminate toxic and noxious ones, replacing them with alternatives that are less damaging to human health.
Where does the blame lie?
Gong Yancheng, a member of the Environmental Protection Research Professional Committee of the All-China Environment Federation, said he thought the problems found by Greenpeace were not only caused by imperfect national standards and irresponsible enterprises, but were also down to the industry-chain management of global clothing brands.
"Many Chinese enterprises are still in the early stage of development and are struggling with price competition. It is normal to see the profits of the manufacturing step for each product reach only 1 percent of the product's sales price. To change this unreasonable distribution of profits is key to increasing environmental responsibility by enterprises down the value chain," Gong said.
Gong encouraged brand companies to give more support to their manufacturers in terms of technical monitoring and better processing prices as it would allow them to develop economically and boost environmental protection.
When the Global Times asked Wei if she believed change would occur after the Greenpeace report, she shook her head.
However, others still have some hope. Xu Chenghua, a travel guide, and two other young men from Shanghai, spent their spare time being volunteers in Zhejiang for Greenpeace. They helped to set up 20 plastic models dressed in the attire of the brands involved along the banks of the Qiantang River near the sewage draining exits.
"These models deliver a silent message of protesting. As long as more people started pay attention to pollution, then we believe change will come," Xu said.