Tackling New Threats
Chromium Waste in China
Chromium and China
Chromium salt is an important industrial raw material. The production of one ton of chromium salt in China results in the creation of nearly three tons of chromium slag, containing highly toxic levels of hexavalent chromium. As early as 2005, a government investigation found that as a result of inefficient processing technologies, chromium production had resulted in over six million tons of chromium slag accumulating in China, of which only two million tons had been processed. Transportation of the slag sometimes results in toxic spills; chromium waste sites are not properly constructed or maintained, resulting in additional contamination; and there is no long-term plan for safe processing or storage of the waste.
A historic lawsuit over chromium pollution
In 2011, the Chinese NGO Friends of Nature (FON) discovered that Luliang Chemical Industry Company and its affiliate were engaged in the illegal accumulation and handling of roughly 200,000 tons of unprocessed chromium slag on the banks of the Nanpan River. Local villagers had complained of a high incidence of cancer in recent years, as well as sudden die-offs of animals and poor growth of cash crops. Testing found hexavalent chromium levels were up to 2,000 times the legal limit. Haulers contracted to transport the slag for disposal were found to have illegally dumped 5,000 tons of waste near a water reservoir.
FON filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for damages resulting from the company’s actions. This is the first true “public interest” pollution suit in China, and has led to a change in the law to allow certain civil society organizations to sue for environmental pollution. One of the issues is how to safely process and dispose of the chromium waste. While existing laws cover much of the illegal behavior, implementation and enforcement present the greatest challenges.
Another legal approach
EDLC was requested to obtain pro bono assistance from a U.S. law firm to provide advice to Chinese civil society on the U.S. experience with chromium waste management. Chinese environmental law is surprisingly undeveloped, and the ultimate goal of the project is to help China develop its law to help solve the growing threat posed by chromium waste.
EDLC recruited a team of over a dozen lawyers from the Perkins Coie law firm to develop a report on U.S. regulation of toxics and hazardous substances, focusing on hexavalent chromium. The team’s comprehensive 2014 report describes the background of U.S. regulation and monitoring of toxics; federal laws for preventing toxic pollution and for addressing the investigation and remediation of toxic pollution; and legal avenues for preventing it. The report also contains a section on the best practices for remediation and cleanup of chromium sites, prepared by Golder & Associates, which was also recruited by EDLC on a pro bono basis.
The head of the Perkins Coie team traveled to China in 2014 to meet with civil society groups and further explain the U.S. model of toxics regulation and remediation. The trip was a huge success, and a second visit took place in May 2015. It is also hoped that the report could be helpful to the court in fashioning a remedy in the Luliang case and in other situations involving toxic waste contamination.