Phosphate miner

Last month the Chinese province of Sichuan was victim to a prolonged and devastating rainstorm. According to online news outlets, the floods killed at least 68 people, with 179 missing and over three million people affected. In addition, the disaster area was the prior site of a 5.2-magnitude earthquake. Which means after a long and arduous rebuilding process, this area has once again become a disaster zone.

In covering this event, the overwhelming majority of media outlets in China have focused on the severity of the disaster and the heroes involved. However, lacking has been a serious discussion of the natural and manmade contributing factors. The repeated disasters of the northern Chengdu area of Sichuan, along with the impact this has had on human life and the economy, cannot be completely attributed to an act of God. The blind expansion of the mining industry in this area, which is already prone to natural disasters, is without a doubt amplifying the existing safety risks.

In fact, the link between mining and natural disasters in Sichuan has long been known. The province is one of the leading producers of the mineral phosphate. One of the highest concentrations of phosphate lies in the Mount Longmen region and it is here that the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake originated. For many years extensive mining has been producing large amounts of coal and crushed stone, and has had a devastating effect on already weak geological structures. Every year the rainy season here results in landslides, among other natural disasters.

At the beginning of the year we interviewed a mining industry expert and learned that as a necessary safety precaution, there should be annual closures of the mining plants for a few months. Only after the landslide period has passed should the mines re-open and resume production. In reality the high cost of rebuilding roads and bringing production to a halt, especially in a year like this when rain has been continuous, means that these large-scale mining enterprises are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Mining enterprises are thus unable to guarantee the safety of their miners. During the most recent rainstorms, the four mining sites of Mabian, Jinhe, Deyang and Leibo have all been victim to varying degrees of damage. Deyang and Jinhe appear to be the most severely affected. A large degree of infrastructure and buildings in these areas were submerged during the floods. Mining equipment in these areas were also submerged. According to the “China Chemical Report”, up to five people went missing, with one additional person severely injured, and that altogether the mining economy has suffered losses surpassing 400 million RMB.

Damage from the storm is irrevocable but we must try to draw a lesson from this disaster. Efforts should be made to develop more sustainable methods and policies when it comes to continuing development in Sichuan. As a nation we can no longer support the rapid expansion of phosphate mining in Mount Longmen. According to the “Sichuan Province Plan for Mining,” predictions put 2015 production levels at five times that of 2009. Clearly the devastating loss caused by the great Sichuan earthquake of 2008 was not enough to spur a response from the authorities. They failed to tailor a specific development plan and regulate the mining industry in this area, which is known to be prone to natural disasters. Which also means the authorities also failed to protect the people who reside there.

Mount Longmen may have a rich supply of natural resources, but concurrently as the site of a 5.2-magnitude earthquake, also continues to experience aftershocks, floods and landslides. It is a high risk zone and should be appropriately treated as such. It is also a conservation zone for wild pandas, a metropolis of cultures and a grade two animal protection habitat.

Apart from the obvious dangers of mining in a high-risk area, large-scale mining produces an enormous amount of chemical waste. This is a problem that Sichuan, along with the rest of the world, has yet to find a solution for. The government is in the process of drawing up regulations to develop and protect those involved in this high-risk, high-cost industry. In doing so they must concentrate on finding a balance between economic benefit, avoiding ecological hazards and ensuring adequate safety standards for workers. Only time will tell if they succeed in making a reasonable and sustainable choice. 

It is a great shame that it takes a devastating storm to bring about real change in the halls of government and their policies. However here's hoping the storm has catalysed a change of direction amongst authorities, one towards a more balanced and sustainable development plan.

Image: A worker at the entrance of the phosphate mine. © Greenpeace / Yong Yang

Living with Danger