American Public Media’s Marketplace.org published a heartbreaking story on Thursday of the hundreds of people in China who bathe in and drink from a stream that runs through the mining town of Majiapo, which just so happens to be bright orange.
The “winding river of gatorade” has been this way for nearly a year, and is caused by “acid mine drainage,” which is discharged acidic water from an abandoned coal mine. It is contaminated with sulfuric acid and heavy metals, according to Marketplace’s report, and has a strong taste of ammonia. Sometimes it stains the villagers’ skin orange. Other times it causes diarrhea.
“It’s completely toxic,” Ma Huiming, a resident of Majiapo, told Marketplace. “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 report says that this kind of coal cocktail is a problem throughout Shanxi province, which produces one-third of the country’s abundant coal. China currently has approximately 2,300 coal plants, but the Shanxi province in particular is known for having coal pollution problems. In 2007, rates of birth defects in the country had risen 40 percent since 2001, which Chinese officials at the time blamed on emissions from Shanxi’s large coal and chemical industries. In 2009, the BBC reported that those birth defects had soared with the occurrence of one of the worst droughts in 50 years, with the defects mainly showing up in the Shanxi province.
China is far from the first place to experience detrimental effects of acid mine drainage. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Susquehanna Valley region of Pennsylvania was a major source for anthracite coal, a hard, compact variety of coal. Because of the rapid boom in production, environmental precautions were not always taken, which resulted in the contamination of more than 3,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania. It is currently the most extensive water pollution problem affecting watersheds in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The estimated cost for restoring those watersheds ranges from $5 billion to $15 billion.
Polluted water is just the latest environmental woe to pop up in China, which is in the midst of a pollution catastrophe. All last week, air pollution levels in Shangha hovered at “heavily” and “severely” polluted, according to Shanghai’s Air Quality Index, at up to 31 times the recommended levels. In January, Beijing experienced its worst air pollution on record — levels of particulate matter topped out at 723 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers 25 or less micrograms per cubic meter ideal for human health. Above 300 is considered hazardous.
In October, air pollution nearly shut down the entire city of Harbin, and in December, extreme air pollution forced children and the elderly in Shanghai behind closed doors and windows for at least seven days.