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November 18, 2010

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Trashy tale of 'toxic' landfill

THE overwhelmed Nanhui area landfill poses a serious environmental problem. Residents say they're sickened by the stink and doctors and lawmakers agree. Xu Chi and Dong Zhen get a whiff of the issues.

It was 6pm in a small and peaceful village in Nanhui of the Pudong New Area, when a villager ran home and sealed all the windows and doors.

"Here it comes again," said the 54-year-old villager surnamed Niu. "It's everywhere, the toxic air with the stench of a decayed corpse!"

The "stench of a corpse" is the choking smell of city landfill garbage pervading two villages of 3,000-4,000 residents. Niu and more than 10 other residents interviewed by Shanghai Daily early this month all said they believed the air was toxic because "many villagers were suffering from serious skin conditions, respiratory disease and even cancer."

People in their 50s and 60s have died prematurely, they claimed, citing the "eco hazard" from the only municipal landfill, which is operated by Laogang Waste Disposal Co.

There is no significant garbage sorting in Shanghai, so most of the refuse in the dump is both organic and inorganic, harmless and toxic. If sorting and recycling were implemented, the volume would be far less and the facility could handle it better, company officials have said.

Zhao Jin, Party secretary of Laogang Town Government, presented a picture totally different from the descriptions of villagers.

"The pollution and the following diseases are the old story of Laogang about 10 years ago," Zhao told Shanghai Daily during the interview two weeks ago. "Now we are doing fine."

But he said he was not authorized to allow Shanghai Daily reporters to tour the site.

The city's environmental watchdog regularly inspects the site and has issued no warnings of environmental problems.

The site is around 60km from the downtown area and on the coast of the East China Sea, where barges unload garbage at a terminal for processing. The site covers around 10 square kilometers and is said to be the biggest of its kind in China and Southeast Asia.

The problem isn't new - the site was built around 20 years ago - and residents have been tormented by the stench for many years, especially on hot, humid and rainy days.

It appears to be getting worse, residents say, again appealing for the village and town governments to stop the air pollution. They said they have appealed for many years, to no avail.

Officials have acknowledged the site is operating far beyond its capacity at this time, handing 8,000 tons of garbage per day; its maximum design capacity is 4,900 tons in the fourth and current phase.

The site is around 3km from Zhonggang Village, and only 2km from Donghu Village. The villages are home for 3,000 to 4,000 people, mostly farmers and small business people.

Most of the 10-plus villagers interviewed by Shanghai Daily express concerns that the malodorous air may contain toxic gas and that the plant may also be polluting the nearby river, the underground water and causing serious ailments.

They cite their own deteriorating health and all said their were suffering respiratory and skin problems.

A 38-year-old villager, surnamed Zhao, displays a rash of small red spots on his body that he believed were caused by polluted bathing water.

Niu, a gas station worker, says eight men in Donghu Village died in their 50s or 60s this year of cancers that he associated with a tainted environment. He noted that city's health bureau announced that residents' average life expectancy was almost 82 years in 2009.

Another villager, surnamed Jiang, says she had to send her 60-year-old mother-in-law to the hospital three or four times a year because she developed emphysema after moving to the village.

"It (the emphysema) just cannot be cured," says Jiang. "We have spent more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,505) on medical expenses, asking doctors to inject medicines directly into her chest and back, but it didn't help.

Their concerns are echoed by the latest investigation and report from the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress, which said residents living near the disposal site suffered a high incidence of diseases and the number was climbing every year.

It cited statistics from Nanhui Central Hospital and Laogang Town Medical Center showing that the villagers had the highest incidence of hepatitis, bacillary dysentery, lung cancer and fibroids in Nanhui area.

The legislators have sent the report to the city government, urging significant action to improve the city's waste disposal capacity and the villagers' living environment.

The government has not responded so far, lawmakers said.

"The smell extends to areas more than a dozen kilometers from the site," says the Pudong New Area legislator Zhu Hongming, a member of the team involved in the investigation.

Zhu says teams have spent nearly three months visiting villages, town officials, hospitals and the landfill processing plant to compile their report.

Villagers relate the embarrassing scene where town officials had to use bottles of air freshener before welcoming Shanghai Mayor Han Zhen, who several months ago inspected the site and villages.

The project started operation in 1989 and today handles more than 70 percent of the city's garbage.

Yan Guangliang, a senior official with the waste disposal company, was recently quoted by Shanghai Xinmin Evening News as saying that the plant has been working at extreme overcapacity and under enormous operating pressure.

Yan said proper sorting and recycling was essential to reduce the volume of waste.

A security guard at the entrance to the plant told Shanghai Daily that as part of the operation, segregation sheets are always put above the layers of waste in the rising landfill.

"The project looks like a hill and now the waste has taken up to half the project's designed height of 45 meters," he said.

Despite the stench, the villagers are doing reasonably well since they earn a good living by farming or doing business. Many have bought cars and built houses.

"I have lived in this land for my entire life and so did my parents," says a 32-year-old villager, surnamed Dong. "We don't want to move away. If someone has to move, it should be the disposal site."

"It's still my motherland, though now it almost smothers me," says villager Zhao.

Despite the foul air, life goes on in the villages. Residents play cards, joke around, have parties and give birth to babies whom they hope will live long, healthy lives.


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