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DOWN THE YANGTZE RIVER

CLOUDING UP THE VALLEYS
Producer of phosphate chemicals does not appear to be very environmentally friendly

JEAN-FRANÇOIS TREMBLAY

MARCH 23—A good driver can make the difference between success and failure on these reporting trips. When I find a good driver, I stick with him. The taxi driver I first hired when I came to Yichang three days ago has been very valuable.

We went for a drive today about three hours west of Yichang to have a look at the facilities of Hubei Xingfa Chemicals, a producer of phosphate chemicals. Company representatives had told me that the firm adheres to stringent environmental standards, but I had to take that on faith when I saw the plants.

Arrangements for the trip were made the day before when I visited Xingfa's Yichang offices, just after an interview at Hubei Yihua Group, another local chemical maker. I expected things to go smoothly at Xingfa. The company's business manager, Dong Xianming, had earlier replied to my request for an interview and said others could help me if he was not available.

HIDDEN Unseen from the main road, another Xingfa plant in Xingshan spews thick smoke that's at odds with the idyllic setting.

Dong was indeed on a business trip to Guangzhou when I arrived. I met instead with Vice General Manager Chen Jizhong, who claimed not to know the answers to basic questions like the company's annual sales or its growth rate. A very busy man, his mind seemed to be elsewhere. His phone rang four times during my 20-minute meeting with him, and about five people knocked at his door.

Knowing that the company's production facilities are located in an idyllic countryside setting, I asked him if I could visit the next day. This could be an opportunity to take very scenic photos of chemical plants. Chen seemed relieved and enthusiastically agreed. He phoned a plant manager who agreed to meet me the next day. I thought the company had one plant site, but it turned out that there are about 30. Xingfa makes products such as sodium tripolyphosphate, sodium hexametaphosphate, sodium hypophosphite, yellow phosphorus, dimethylcarbonate, and phosphorus pentasulfide.

WARY I took this photo of a Xingfa plant in Xingshan over the objections of the site's guards. Photos by Jean-François Tremblay

The drive to the Xingfa site was enchanting. For most of the way, the road meanders at the foot of imposing and peculiarly shaped mountains that remind me of the scenes depicted in traditional Chinese paintings. There are cultivated fields, terraces, and houses high on the hills. It was generally more spectacular than traveling along the Yangtze River, and there were absolutely no tourists.

Along the way, we passed many trucks delivering phosphate ore to Yichang, where it is transferred onto ships that deliver the mineral to other parts of China and abroad. The unsightly trucks did not fit in with the beauty of the scenery. Indeed, very little seemed to have been done to attract tourists into this area.

I was unprepared for what I saw upon arriving at the gates of the Xingfa factory near the town of Xingshan. Unlike the photo on the company's website, the facilities were not good looking at all. They featured several flares that appeared to burn inefficiently, and dark smoke was coming out of several chimneys.

I called Mr. Li, the manager who was supposed to greet me. He said that, unfortunately, he had no time. He referred me to another executive, who asked that we drive to the company's offices in Xingshan. Before leaving, I took some photos of the facility--to the protests of security guards at the gates who insisted that taking photos from the public road was not allowed.

The Xingfa manager I later met in Xingshan, Mr. Su, was oddly unhelpful. He reluctantly scribbled his name on my pad after claiming he had no business card. The Chinese characters he wrote turned out to be impossible to read. He also had difficulty explaining what he actually did at Xingfa, eventually agreeing to the title of manager of general affairs.

ON THE ROAD The route to the Xingfa facility wanders along the base of a mountain range.

The meeting lasted about 30 minutes, in the course of which he answered several of the questions that, the day before, Chen could not. Xingfa, he told me, produces phosphate chemicals out of phosphate ore extracted from numerous mines within a 100-mile radius. Annual sales are about $100 million and have been growing at more than 70% annually for the past three years. The company owns 13 hydroelectric plants in the area.

Su also insisted that Xingfa's customers routinely submit its facilities to stringent environmental and safety audits. He added that customers in the Middle East also make sure that the company's products are made in a way that is consistent with the Koran's teachings. Xingfa's product range includes some pharmaceutical intermediates and food ingredients. Su said the firm is the world's largest producer of sodium hexametaphosphate, with a capacity of 50,000 metric tons per year.

At the end of the meeting, I asked again whether I could visit the company's facilities. Su bluntly declined, adding that I had already seen them when I stood outside one of the plant's gates.

Seeing the dejected look on my face when I returned to the car, my driver asked whether I would like to take more photos. It was my luck that he had lived in the town of Xingshan for 10 years. He took me to another Xingfa plant. This plant was invisible from the main road, and what a sight it was. Nestled among lovely hills was a chemical plant that must be among the world's ugliest. The facilities seemed to date from the industrial revolution, and smoke was coming from countless chimneys. I told the driver he had just made my trip. "I am satisfied when you are," he said.

Xingfa's facilities are controlled by the government of Xingshan county, the same body that is responsible for the local enforcement of national environmental standards. From what I had seen, enforcement appeared rather lax. It is beyond my abilities to know whether the thick smoke I saw coming from Xingfa's plants is harmless or not. But the company's lack of forthrightness did not inspire much confidence.

[Back to Chronicling the Yangtze River]



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