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Capital's Waste Disposal Plan Raises a Stink
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When the stink of rotting waste awakens Liu Ying at 2 AM, she closes the toilet door and tries to doze off the rest of the night to avoid a headache in the morning. But the stink is not from the toilet, and she knows it. The Liulitun waste dump is less than 200 meters from her kitchen window, and the foul smell it emanates sticks to her sofa, bed-sheets, newly polished floor and her daughter's toys. The 40-hectare dump takes most of the domestic waste generated by Beijing's Haidian District: 2,200 tons of it every day.

The green woods and vine-covered brick walls of the Liulitun dump in northwest Beijing do little to hide the rubbish within or to cover the stink it has caused among the people living near it. For a decade residents have been complaining against the stench, and the local government's plan to build a waste-fueled power plant on the site has caused them more frustration.

For a decade residents have been complaining against the stench, and the local government's plan to build a waste-fueled power plant on the site has caused them more frustration.

The controversy surrounding the district government, environment administrations and local residents highlights the dilemma faced by Beijing and other Chinese cities.

The dump should never have been built in the first place, say environmental experts. A Beijing Environmental Protection Administration (BEPA) report had warned against a dump at the site way back in 1995 because it had residential areas, military stations and factories within a 2-km radius and 11,000 residents nearby were using underground water for drinking and cooking. But environmental concerns gave way to the urgent demand for disposal of wastes.

"Before work on the dump began in 1997, we were informed that our lives wouldn't be affected because the stench would be confined to a 100-meter radius," says Zhang Xiangfeng, former chief of Beijing Xiliu Construction Co. The company's office building and its staff quarters were near the then proposed dump.

But when reality belied the assurances, residents began fearing the worst for the water they drank. "The underground water table near the dump is polluted. It poses a threat to residents if they continue to draw water from it," says Pang Zhonghe, an expert with the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Pang has tested the underground water around the dump, Nanfang Weekend has quoted him as saying.

The district government had promised to convert the dump into a park after 18 years of operation. But the plan to build a waste-fueled power plant announced in March this year has laid that promise to rest.

As one of the four such plants to be built in Beijing, the 8-million-yuan (US$1.05-billion) project will burn 1,200 tons of waste a day. "The dump has given us enough trouble. It was supposed to be shut down. But when will this happen if there's a plan to build a power plant?" says a resident.

Older residents like Liu and Zhang kept silent and "sacrificed their lives" but those living in newly built estates are ready to speak. Take residents of two communities, 3 km southeast of the dump, for instance. First they began a discussion on their community Internet bulletin board, and slogans such as "No Stench, No Cancer" reflected their fear that the discharges from burning waste will be a health hazard. They then hired lawyers to talk to the administration. Such is the concern among residents near the dump that other communities have now joined them in support.

Residents have handed two petitions to the State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA) and the Legislative Affairs Office of the Beijing government, asking BEPA to withdraw the approval for the power plant.

Zhou Jinfeng, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top political advisory body, has also joined the lobby. He submitted a plea at this year's CPPCC annual session to stop the project, drawing a lot of media attention.

On World Environment Day (June 5), residents got a boost when Haidian District deputy head Wu Yamei, district environment department and other related officials and the project contractor invited four representatives of the protesters for talks. Wu promised to pass their views to her superiors and hoped to maintain contact with the residents.

A week later SEPA suspended the power plant project, saying the local administration needed to carry out more research on its environmental impact, and solicit and consider the opinions of locals.

Some experts, too, support the residents. "To build a waste-fueled power plant in such a area is a great risk. Burning waste will emit pollutants called dioxides that can be absorbed by the human body," says Qiu Yihua, a pollution prevention expert with Greenpeace's Beijing office. Burying waste is better than burning it, he says.

But the government has its own reasons to go ahead with the project. "No land is available for a plant in Haidian today," a local official said in 2006. "If we can't build it here, what do we do with the waste when the dump is full?"

The waste disposal trouble is not exclusive to Haidian District, for the whole of Beijing faces this problem. The capital's 10 dumps will be full and have to be closed by 2010. So the government wants to know where does the 10,770 tons of waste generated every day go.

Land has become so valuable today that nobody would turn a plot into a waste dump. The government thinks waste-fueled power plants are the answer to the waste disposal problem in Beijing, where 90 percent of the waste is buried. Hence, more such plants are on the way.

"Burning waste won't emit any toxic byproducts, including dioxins, if the burning process follows the rules strictly," says Wang Weiping, senior engineer with the municipal urban administration office. This means the temperature must remain above 820 C or below 360 C during burning, and the cooling procedure from 820 C to 360 C in the furnace must take less than three seconds.

But a resident, surnamed Luo, says: "The Haidian District government could not ensure a stink-free dump, so how can we believe it's capable of such a high-risk project?" Luo moved into Fenglian Community seven years ago unaware of the nearby dump.

Official figures show 70 percent of the waste in Chinese cities is buried and just 5 percent is burnt. Most of the cities cannot afford the huge investment needed for waste-fueled power plants, but with the dwindling acreage of idle land and improving economic situation, more cities, especially big ones, will turn to burning waste, and the Liulitun case could be repeated across the country.

Capital Normal University professor Lei Da offers an alternative: small, community-based furnaces that are less risky, reduce transport needs and can be used to heat water. Biotechnology can be used to dispose the waste not suitable for burning. Lei's research shows Haidian's domestic waste has lower thermal value and high humidity, and hence is not suitable as power plant fuel. But again this proposal has the same problem of being carried out properly.

So far, there has been no clear solution in sight. The Haidian government told Xinhua recently that it was unable to answer any questions till BEPA finishes its environment evaluation. BEPA, too, refused to comment.

To ensure safe drinking water, however, the local government has taken measures, but many wonder if it's enough. A community of about 100 people used to drink underground water from a shallow, 150-meter well near the dump. After several rounds of negotiations, the government linked their water supply to another well, which is deeper and further away from the dump, in April this year. The old one has been abandoned.

But till a foolproof solution is found, residents around Liulitun dump will continue to suffer, with the wet and humid summer weather making their days worse.

(China Daily August 14, 2007)

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