DAYING Town in north China’s Hebei Province has long been famous for its fur-processing industry, which is comprised of some 10,000 small companies and workshops and employs around 15,000 people.
Over recent years, annual sales of the town’s fur and leather products have exceeded 20 billion yuan (US$3.22 billion), including over US$700 million from export sales.
Such results mean the town’s handiwork can be found not just in the local Chinese market, but in foreign markets such as Russia, Japan, South Korean, Europe and the United States.
Yet this thriving industry has grown at tremendous cost to the local environment.
Numerous rivers in and around Daying, known as “the home of furs in China,” are now filled with black and brown water and have been discolored for at least several months, according to National Business Daily.
The town’s main waterway, the Yingnan Canal, has run dry with its bed dotted with mounds of sludge.
Work crews with excavators and bulldozers are now busy installing a system of drainage pipes which local officials say will alleviate the problem.
But if earlier reports offer any hint as to what the future might bring, the ultimate benefits of such a project may be limited. For their part, many residents who have profited from the polluting fur and leather trade also appear reluctant to bow out of the toxic industry.
One Daying dweller told reporters that sewage and industrial waste are still often discharged raw into the town’s water supply.
“Our rivers used to be clean enough to swim in, but now they are only fit for flies and mosquitoes,” the resident said, adding that grass rarely grows now near the town’s water sources.
Another resident with knowledge of the industry attributed the town’s discolored waters to discharges of acids, salts and chrome powders used by fur and leather processors.
Such views are widely held in Daying, where many — including local authorities — recognize that the town’s lengthy history of releasing untreated industrial waste has led to severe water contamination problems.
In 2003, the local government took action by investing 75 million yuan on a sewage plant capable of treating 30,000 tons of wastewater. The plant was officially put into operation in June 2008.
But according to one local informant interviewed by National Business Daily, much of Daying’s industrial wastewater is still discharged without any treatment at all. Large amounts are also reportedly released after only an initial treatment process.
Similar accusations and suspicions appeared in local reports previously. Early last year, China Environment Observation reported that only about half of the plant’s equipment had been put into operation. The magazine also found treatment additives stored in a corner of the plant, where they were covered in a layer of dust that hinted at their disuse.
In response to these claims, officials in Zaoqiang County, where Daying is located, pointed out that the plant is a state-owned enterprise and the government can monitor in real time the composition of the sewage passing through it.
They also stressed that efforts to supervise the local fur and leather industry have been enhanced. Enterprises that did not follow relevant regulations, they said, would be forced to close.
Last June, a report from Hebei’s Department of Environmental Protection indicated that 10 local sewage treatment plants, including the one in Daying Town, were operating in compliance with government standards.
The local government relies on the fur and leather industry for a large share of its fiscal revenue. According to their latest annual work report, authorities in Zaoqing County expect total fiscal revenue to hit 1.15 billion yuan this year, twice the amount brought in during 2012.
As for the people of Daying, although the fur and leather industry has brought them wealth, the prosperous trade comes with numerous drawbacks.
Few locals, for instance, dare to drink the local water, reported National Business Daily. People usually drink bottled water or carry it from neighboring towns.
What’s more, although many wealthy families have prepared large dowries for their daughters, few outsiders want to marry women from Daying because of the town’s battered reputation.
Despite these and other drawbacks, most local people are unwilling to give up the toxic industry they depend on for their livelihoods.
“Local residents rarely look for work in big cities,” says a villager. “Many earn more than 3,000 yuan a month from fur processing, and fur sales mean employment here is not a problem.”