A village, poisoned: the toxic trail of China's coal industry


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    The drinking water for the village of Majiapo in Shanxi province is contaminated by acid mine drainage - discharged water containing sulfuric acid and other heavy metals from a coal mine operated by the Yangmei Group. This type of pollution is common in China's coal country.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    A coal truck drives by the stream that runs through the mining town of Majiapo, in Shanxi province. The waterway, polluted by chemicals from Yangmei Group's coal mine upriver, is the main source of drinking water for the village. Credit: Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Ma Huiming works at a coal mine near his village of Majiapo in Shanxi province. He says his employer, Yangmei Group, owes workers three months of unpaid wages. Credit: Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    A child in the village of Majiapo plays on a pile of coal, the region's economic lifeblood. The coal mine upstream from the village is contaminating the village's only water source.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    The contaminated stream that runs through Majiapo turned orange a year ago. The village well is also contaimated. Hundreds of residents rely on this water to drink, clean vegetables, make food, and bathe in. Yangmei Group nor the local government accepted interview requests from Marketplace.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Children play in the village of Majiapo, in Shanxi province's Qingxu County. Villager Ma Huiming worries about the contaminated water's impact on the health of the village's children.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

Nearly a year ago, the stream that runs through the mining town of Majiapo suddenly turned bright orange. Today it looks like a winding river of Gatorade, cutting through the terraced Chinese countryside.

But it tastes much worse.

“It’s got a strong taste, like ammonia, and it smells like sulfur," says villager Ma Huiming. "It stains your skin orange.”

Ma says he and the hundreds of other people who live here drink this water and bathe in it. He takes me to the village well beside the river. We peer inside at the orange water. “It’s completely toxic," Ma says, "But we’re too poor to afford to drink anything else. I worry about what it’ll do to my children, what kind of diseases they’ll get. People who can afford to leave for the city have moved.”

The orange water is caused by acid mine drainage -- discharged water from a coal mine -- it’s contaminated with sulfuric acid and a range of heavy metals. It’s a problem throughout Shanxi province, which provides a third of China’s coal. Ma says his employer, Yangmei Group, which runs a mine a few miles up the river, is responsible.

So I go there.

I arrive at lunch break -- coal miners are outside a canteen eating noodles. When they see a foreigner with a microphone, a yelling match breaks out between workers who begin complaining about the water and workers who warn me to leave. Miner Zhang Quanding shows me his bowl of noodles. “Look at this water!" Zhang yells. "Pigs wouldn’t even drink water like this! I’ve had diarrhea for weeks!”

Zhang says workers have complained to management, but the complaint was ignored. Upon hearing this, the boss emerges from the canteen and yells at Zhang. Another miner shouts: “A true Chinese person wouldn’t talk to a foreign journalist.”

Zhang shoots back: “A true Chinese person can’t drink this water.”

Downstream, villager Ma Huiming says it would be best if the Yangmei Group shut down the mine. Both the Yangmei Group and the local government denied requests for interviews. Ma says he’d like to return to farming, but between the toxic water and the coal dust in the air, it’s become too difficult to grow anything.

As a red truck packed with black rocks rumbles through the village, Ma says he’s left with only one choice: mining more coal.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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