The "foolish" men and a phosphorus mountain

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Feature Story - 2013-04-02
There is an old Chinese tale of a "foolish old man" whose home was penned in by two mountains, making access to and fro difficult. The man declared he would move the mountains, earning ridicule from his neighbours in the process. But the man persevered and suddenly the Emperor of Heaven appeared and moved the mountains away.

A mountain of waste

In Mianzhu City there is also a group of "foolish" men concerned about their living environment, desperately trying to move away "mountains" of phosphogypsum which were dumped by phosphorus chemical giant Lomon Group on the nearby river bank. 

Bai village is located just 15 minutes from Mianzhu city, and not far from the river. The recent expansion of the city has begun to encroach on the village with a number of tall buildings under construction meeting the edge of pastoral fields. And yet it's difficult to ignore the stunning landscape – rolling hills and a gently flowing river.

Villagers tell us they've been burdened with this phosphogypsum mountain for years. On rainy days the water becomes a black colour having picked up the dust and the air turns dark. Even on the hillsides the water begins to stink, developing a thick viscous layer. The water used to bathe children cause irritation. They say drink the water and your legs being to feel pain, and lumps appear on your waist.

Six years ago when the remaining families signed a lease with the Lomon Group, they never expected that the company would bring with it a giant monster made of phosphogypsum.

Phosphogypsum is a byproduct from production of phosphate fertilizer, and contains a variety of harmful substances. About five tons of phosphogypsum is produced from every one ton of produced phosphoric acid. And across China, the nation has accumulated 300 million tons of such waste residues. Disposing of this hazardous waste has now become a major problem.

This repairman is called Mr. Zhao. He is driving with two neighbours back to his village – home of one of the country's largest slag heaps. With nowhere to turn, he has called his fellow villages to chip in for a digger that will help them transport the slagheap. Every day they line up cars to transport the waste, and though each day 20 trips are made the slagheap still seem gargantuan in size. They fear it will take decades to evacuate this mountain.

I dare not show him a map of China I have in my bag: it shows the three hundred million tons of waste estimated by the national stock of phosphogypsum that dot the country. To clean up such a mess you would need 10-ton trucks and 30 million trips before the job would be done. And this doesn't even take into account the fact that the phosphorus chemical industry is constantly producing thousands more tons per year. Endless piles of phosphogypsum, mountains that cannot be moved.

And yet, I admired the Bai villagers for refusing to be defeated by this slagheap, when elsewhere pollution victims feel themselves so powerless. The picture of these three villagers, busy under the shadow of the excavator, honest, stubborn and determined, stuck with me. Just as in the story of the foolish old man, it was his persistence that carried him through, and in the name of a better future for his descendants. This is all that Mr. Zhao wants, a better future for the next generation, who need not eat the bitter fruit planted by the generation before.

The question now is will these "old men" receive any assistance from the "gods above" who can aid them in their mission to move these mountains? And end the suffering caused by this toxic phosphorus?

Image: Greenpeace investigators estimate that this pile of phosphate slag heap is only 10 meters apart from the nearest field of Tingjiang Village, Shifang City, Sichuan Province. © Wen Wenyu / Greenpeace 

Living with Danger

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