It has transpired that a tip-off to the Lanzhou Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) led a company to hastily dig up some industrial waste which they had dumped in a remote valley in Gansu province, the night after the tip-off was made.
The industrial waste they dug up was made up of waste cathode carbon blocks, a vital component of electrolytic aluminium. According to the Directory of National Hazardous Waste 《国家危险废物名录》released by the Ministry of Environment Protection in 2016, the residue of electrolytic aluminium is categorized as “T”, meaning toxic.
The tip-off was provided by Guan He, a member of the “fresh air guards” (好空气保卫侠), an environmental organization. After a first tip-off in September, this was the group’s second warning regarding the company, the Lanzhou branch of Aluminum Corporation of China Limited (CHALCO).
In the middle of September, the “fresh air guards” discovered that the Lanzhou Branch of CHALCO was suspected of hazardous waste mismanagement after an investigation. On the 26th of September, it released an article on its official WeChat account and delivered the relevant documents to the EPB in Lanzhou. On the 26th of November the EPB sent feedback to the “fresh air guards”, saying that the waste cathode carbon blocks had been sent to temporary warehouses that belonged to the Lanzhou Branch of CHALCO. However, two days later, residents of the valley told Guan He that instead of being sent away, some of the blocks were buried in the soil directly in the valley due to incomplete cleaning.
The waste cathode carbon blocks contain a great quantity of soluble fluoride and cyanide. After being exposed to the wind, sun and rain over a long period, the fluoride and cyanide inside the carbon blocks will transfer and evaporate into the atmosphere, flow into the rivers and seep into the ground, polluting the soil and the underground water.
If excessive fluorine is inhaled by the human body, people are likely to suffer from a series of diseases like osteosclerosis and hyperplasia. In severe cases, it can lead to invalidity. With regards to skin and respiratory mucosa, fluoride is also highly corrosive and an irritant.
Considering the damage done by the waste cathode carbon blocks, Guan He tipped-off the authorities for a second time on the 8th of December, reporting the incomplete cleaning and the situation of another valley which was also polluted. The Lanzhou Branch of CHALCO then hastily removed the remaining blocks.
Later on the 18th of December, Beijing News reported the issue and attracted public attention. Then Gansu Province and Lanzhou City established a joint working group to launch an investigation. The EPB in Lanzhou launched an investigation as well. On the 26th of December, the people’s government of Lanzhou announced that the CHALCO in Lanzhou didn’t follow the national requirements when handling the industrial waste, indicating a lack of environmental protection awareness, clear accountability and supervision.
A report by the official account of the Alashan SEE Foundation quoted an assessment by an expert named Qu Ruijing, who said that the issue was an iconic event for environmental administration. Victims of pollution in remote districts don’t have communication channels with large scale and powerful central enterprises, so assistance from volunteers, social organizations, and the media is needed.