China’s aluminium industry is still going rogue

From ToxicLeaks

China’s efforts to control aluminium pollution[edit | edit source]

The aluminium business is booming in China, despite complications from a sluggish economy and challenges with fluctuating global bauxite supplies – although a February 2019 decision in Malaysia, once China’s top supplier, to lift that nation’s three-year moratorium may stabilize the latter. These turbulences aside, China Hongqiao, Chalco, Shandong Xinfa, East Hope Group have been going from strength to strength and are dominating the list of the world’s biggest producers by output.  They’re also defying a Chinese government that either cannot or will not enforce pollution standards at aluminium production sites.

It’s ironic that at the same time China is angling to position itself as a global leader on sustainability – and one with a global footprint thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative sweeping across Southeast Asia and Africa and into Europe – Beijing is having trouble reining it its own CO2 footprint. Much like Malaysia, many of the nations targeted by the BRI already feel the negative impacts of Chinese extractive industry practices. That’s especially true in eastern Shandong Province, just a few hundred kilometers across the Yellow Sea from South Koreans choking on the pollution too.

Shandong province policies[edit | edit source]

On paper, Shandong is trying hard to revamp its lackluster environmental standards, and has made sweeping changes to control air, water and other pollution caused by its outsized aluminium sector. A seven-year plan announced in November 2018 envisions a total restructuring of the industry, especially of the on-site coal power plants that keep the smelters burning. As a result of the changes, one analyst estimates that “Essentially, the addition of new aluminium smelting capacity is almost banned in Shandong”.

Shandong’s moves are clear steps in the right direction to clamp down on an industry that has functioned with impunity for far too long. Just look at East Hope Group, which has the audacity to claim on its site that the 40 billion kilowatts generated in 2016 champion the “circular economy” because the dirty coal-power facilities render the factories self-sufficient.

The new Shandong policy builds on previous decisions that included orders for the closure of 3.2 million metric tons’ worth of old, inefficient aluminium plants in 2017. It also works towards achieving the climate goals established in the province, which give a deadline of 2020 to “effectively solve” its environmental problems.

Yet despite all this hot air, environmental advocates beg to differ. Satellite images and other evidence suggest that aluminium companies continue to defy bans and have actually built additional capacity. Climate activists say they’re nothing less than a slap in the face of the government and its production target cuts, shutdowns and emissions goals.

Xinfa Group aluminium facilities[edit | edit source]

Xinyuan Aluminium power plant in September 2018.

Shandong’s Xinfa Group, listed as the world’s third-largest producer of aluminium in 2017, was established in Shandong in 1972. The company has more than 50 aluminium-related and power generating subsidiaries, including its Shandong Xinfa Hope Aluminum Co. Ltd. (East Hope Group).

“While developing the economy, Xinfa Group pays special attention to environmental protection and strives to build environmentally friendly enterprises,” boasts the company, listing ¥1.3 billion in a range of investments to cut particle emissions, reduce sulfur from its power facilities and clean waterways.

This satellite photo of Xinyuan Aluminium was taken in October, 2018. It clearly shows that the plant was still in operation.

But the company has a history of illegal activity at its aluminium smelting operations and their self-contained coal power facilities in Guangxi and other regions. Neither company officials nor environmental inspection agents who looked the other way were held responsible for extensive violations, even as they failed to respect villagers who protested against pollution. The long record of violations includes those in “green” natural areas such as Jingxi on the Vietnam border.

Recent satellite photo of Xinyuan Aluminium power plant located in Chiping country, Liaocheng Prefecture. (January, 2019)

In 2017, the company was told to suspend construction of coal-fired power plants amounting to nearly 6 million kW of electricity generation at its Shandong sites. China’s National Energy Administration was told to withhold licensing for the businesses, or ensure that they had all necessary documentation to permit the facilities. The effort to limit Xinfa’s power generation – and therefore, its aluminium production – was reinforced by a May 2018 plan for Shandong issued by China’s Ministry of Ecology & Environment.

Yet there’s no evidence that Xinfa is complying. To the contrary, data provided as of February 2018 by environmental monitoring group SourceWatch found no proof that the plant ever stopped operation or construction; in fact, satellite images show a new cooling tower under construction at one site. So it appears that in 2019, despite the directives of the Chinese government, Xinfa’s illegal aluminium plants keep producing aluminium, and either no one can or will do anything about it.