An accident at a Chinese mineral ore processing plant in northeastern China recently released large quantities of industrial waste into a tributary leading toward a border with Russia.
Although Chinese officials immediately informed Russia of the accident, the spill has the potential to revive long-standing Russian fears of a growing Chinese presence near and inside the Russian Far East.
On April 7, Paul Goble, a U.S.-based expert on Eurasia who writes for The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, provided details of what could prove to be one of the biggest industrial accidents in recent Chinese history.
Goble said that so far the Chinese have responded in the same way that they did to the coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan.
“Officials have downplayed the threat both locally and at the national level, suggesting that they have already contained the problem,” Goble said.
But hundreds of Chinese specialists were reported to be on their way to the region and appear to be considering measures that they took in November, 2005, following a similar industrial spill from the same mine processing plant. At that time, they built a dam to prevent rare earth metals spilled into the river from moving downstream toward the Chinese city of Harbin.
With a population of more than 10.6 million people, Harbin is the provincial capital of Heilongjiang Province. Located on the Songhua River with the largest inland port in northeastern China, Harbin provides a major gateway for Sino-Russian trade.
Large quantities of toxic waste reaching Harbin would create a disaster.
The recent spill, which occurred on March 28, involved more than 2.5 million cubic meters of highly poisonous industrial waste.
The waste flowed into the Sungari River, which flows into the Amur River. The Amur forms the border between northeastern China and the Russian Far East.
According to Goble, Russians in the region are likely to fear that even if the Chinese react quickly, they’ll be unable to deal effectively with the spill.
Goble cites three reasons for Russian skepticism:
· First, the Chinese government initially ignored warnings and downplayed the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan early this year. Officials claimed, at first at least, that everything was under control. So Russians are increasingly skeptical about any claims made by the Chinese government.
· Second, in the case of industrial spills, China has been reluctant, just as in the case of COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, to allow outside experts to come in and see what’s actually happening.
· Third, Russians know that the real threat from the recent industrial spill will come later, when floods dramatically increase the water flow through the watershed and push the chemical toxins downstream more rapidly. The floods are now only weeks away.
Yevgeny Simonov, a Russian environmental activist with ties to the international nonprofit group Rivers Without Borders, who is cited by Goble, said that he sees genuine reasons for concern about the spill but that not enough is known about what is happening to justify panic.
The problem began two days ago, Simonov said, at China’s giant Yichun Luming Molybdenum Plant, which processes 50,000 tons of ore every day. The plant has maintained production despite falling demand.
Molybdenum is a metal that is highly resistant to corrosion.
Extracting the valuable Molybdenum mineral from the ore produces huge quantities of toxic byproducts. These are contained by what are often referred to as tailings dams.
At the end of March, piles of the toxic byproducts reached 196 meters high--or more than 643 feet high—and suddenly collapsed and slid into the river, presumably killing any animals there and making the nearby water dangerous for human consumption
It took three days to plug all the leaks in the collapsed dam.
According to the Reuters News Agency, tailings dams are often used by mining firms to store waste remnants of ore. But they have come under closer scrutiny since the collapse of one in Brazil last year that killed more than 250 people.
The Yichun Luming Mining Company, which owns the Chinese processing plant, is a subsidiary of the state-run China Railway Resources Group. The company didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Since the Chinese haven’t provided many details, Simonov concludes that a similar accident that occurred at the same mine in 2005, may provide a model of what will happen.
At that time, the contamination of the river with poisonous minerals from China caused panic in Harbin and prompted Beijing to institute new monitoring methods. Fearing that poisons were spreading to the shared Amur River, Russia demanded precise information on the accident.
Russia later sought and then signed with China a bilateral agreement on environmental monitoring of trans-border rivers like the Amur.
Beijing has imposed fines on plants in the region for improperly handling waste products, including most recently a fine imposed only eight days before the Yichun Luming accident occurred.
On April 8, the Reuters reported from Beijing that the emergency management bureau in the city of Yichun will “temporarily withhold” the Yichun Mining Company’s “safe product license.”
Citing a provincial government website, Reuters also said that “restrictive measures” had been taken against Yichun Luming’s managers.
A long history of industrial accidents
As the BBC once noted, China has a long history of industrial accidents, ranging from factory explosions and mudslides to mine collapses.
This commentator can remember a deadly series of explosions that occurred in the city of Tianjin five years ago in August of 2015. A blast in a warehouse containing large quantities of flammable chemicals in one of China’s largest cities had been improperly stored. The fires set off explosions that killed 173 people, including many brave firefighters. Hundreds of other people, many of them residents of the city, were injured.
Following an investigation, it turned out that Yu Xuewei, the chairman of a logistics company, had bribed Tianjin port administration officials who had allowed him to store the hazardous chemicals at the warehouse. Yu received a suspended death sentence.
It’s now quite possible that investigations held in northeastern China that will reveal similar lax supervision of the handling of hazardous wastes due to behind-the-scenes corruption.
But given the Chinese leadership’s current aversion to bad news involving the handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, among other things, it’s not clear how many details of any investigation will be made public.
Meanwhile, it’s difficult to say what the impact might be on Sino-Russian relations.
Russia and China share a common interest in containing any expansion of U.S. power and influence in the world. They have what amounts to an alliance, although it isn’t a formal one.
And the two countries’ leaders, President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping, also have what appears to be a close personal friendship.
Both are authoritarian leaders who promote nationalism and imprison their critics.
But China’s trade with Russia is estimated to come to only two percent of its total trade, while China is Russia’s second largest export destination.
So it’s sometimes said that Russia needs China more than China needs Russia. Or that Putin is the junior partner in the relationship.
Russian officials are concerned about China’s growing influence in Central Asia, a region where Russia has traditionally held sway.
And Chinese investment in Russia’s Far East has stoked Russian fears of China gaining more influence in that region.
The congressionally-funded U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) described the situation as it stood in 2019.
“Russia seeks to develop its resource-rich Far East, but is hobbled by a lack of capital and labor resources,” the USCC said in an annual report to the U.S. Congress.
High-level Russian officials have complained for years that the region could become dependent on China as a result of “excessive Chinese expansion into the region.”
China’s exploitation of the region could be seen in Chinese plans to bottle water from Russia’s Lake Baikal and to build a water pipeline back to China, where freshwater is scarce.
Russian media reports note that some Chinese businesses consider Lake Baikal as a “Chinese Lake,” a notion which relies on Chinese historical claims that are dubious at best.
Meanwhile, Dmitry Kobylkin, Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, complained in August 2019 that Chinese loggers were buying illegally produced timber and warned that Russia could ban timber exports if China didn’t take steps to resolve the issue.
According Goble, Russian media in the region already see “Chinese occupation as a fact because of … visible natural resource exploitation.”
More than three decades ago, this commentator traveled as a reporter up to China’s border with what was then the Soviet Union. I met with a Russian mayor who had crossed over with a delegation to China that was seeking help from China in developing Siberia, one of the world’s least developed frontier regions.
Yuri G. Lyashko, the mayor of Blagoveshchensk, revealed feelings of ambivalence.
He needed help from the Chinese but also showed concern about having large numbers of Chinese move into Soviet territory to develop the border region.
As China expert Sun Yun told me years later, the relationship between Russia and China can be best understood as “a genuine convergence of national interests despite powerful centrifugal forces.”
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.