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Their own worst enemy

Their own worst enemy

September 07, 2010 ChinaDialogue

 

Zijin Mining’s environmental disasters have overshadowed the firm's meteoric rise. When polluting companies – and the officials who protect them – will realise the value of proper supervision?

In its previous incarnation, back in the 1990s, Zijin Mining– now one of China’s most loathed firms – was a small and obscure state-owned enterprise (SOE). Today, the firm, whose polluting ways and local government connections have been the subject of a flurry of recent media reports, is China’s largest producer of gold and second largest of copper. Its mining operations extend overseas, with a presence in countries including Russia, Canada, Peru, South Africa and Vietnam. And it is listed in the 2009 “Financial Times Global 500” – a ranking of the world’s biggest companies.

The capital for this transformation came from the Zijin gold and copper mines on the mountain from which the company takes its name. Here, in the Fujiancounty of Shanghang, south-east China, gold deposits are found on the upper slopes and copper on the lower ones. This is where Zijin has its headquarters. In the 1980s, company chairman Chen Jingheworked here as part of a geological survey team prospecting for reserves. As Chen and his colleagues reported gold reserves of only 5.45 tonnes, the mining rights were handed to the county.

In 1992, Chen Jinghe was headhunted by the county government to manage extraction of gold and copper from the mountain. Over time, the reserves reported to the outside world increased to 100 tonnes and it became China’s single most productive gold mine. Writing about this increase in Metal Mining magazine in 2000, Chen saidthat “Application of economic geologytheory led to a fundamental change in understanding of the deposits.” Whatever the reason, the Zijin site grew from a minor prospect into, well, a goldmine.

Later, Zijin become a private company, with Minxi Xinhang Industriesholding a 28.96% stake on behalf of the Shanghang county government – on paper the largest shareholder. However, two private entrepreneurs from Fujian, Chen Fashu and He Xiping, had actual control and, in combination with Chen Jinghe, held a larger stake than Shanghang government. In 2003, the company listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, and then on the Shanghai stock exchange in 2008.

The quick growth of the firm – and in particular its soaring share price following the Shanghai flotation – made a fortune for these three shareholders and others; some local officials held shares in the company, or simply did well out of working for Zijin after leaving their government posts. Clearly, Zijin’s success has enabled a certain group of people to fill their pockets and if that has happened legally then all well and good – except for the fact that Zijin’s development has been accompanied by environmental failings. While a few have benefitted from the company’s growth, the public, including the majority of Shanghang residents, have had to pay the price in pollution terms.

In 1997, Chen Jinghe blasted the mountain top and started opencast mining, which is both easier and cheaper than mining underground – but more harmful to the environment. On August 2 this year, Zijin’s vice president, Liu Rongchun, said in a media interview that the decision to proceed with the blast had been thoroughly examined before going ahead and approval obtained from the relevant authorities.

Clearly, that is no difficult task when you are so close to local officials. As is the case with many SOEs that have a local government background or links with officials, Zijin Mining was able to take environmental risks due to its support base. Subsequent and frequent pollution incidents were treated lightly thanks to local government protection. Or, to put it another way, the financial costs of pollution were low.

On July 3, a leakfrom a wastewater pond at Zijin Copper Mine sent about 9,100 cubic metres of acidic, copper-laden water into the Ting River, killing thousands of fish. But it was only nine days laterthat either Zijin Mining or the county government – the protector of public interests and a major shareholder in the listed firm – made the accident public. The previous month, my magazine, Century Weekly, had revealed that another incident of pollution from Zijin’s tailings storage had triggered a notice to local schools: “Please don’t eat fish.”

In this context, there was little hope that the local environmental authorities would do anything about Zijin’s string of pollution incidents. Apparently, in the three months from April 11 to July 17, the automated monitoring station placed below the mines by Shanghang Environmental Protection Bureau suffered “equipment damage” and failed to provide any data. The environmental authorities are part of local government, merely guided by the Ministry of Environmental Protection(MEP) or their provincial superiors.

As soon as the MEP loses the cooperation of its local branches, it becomes deaf and blind. And even when its limited sample testing finds breaches, it lacks ways to stop them. Zijin received stern warnings from the Ministry both before and after it listed on the stock market, but it seemed to take no notice at all. There is no doubt that China’s environmental laws need to be revised; the MEP should be given greater powers and the local environmental authorities as much independence as possible from local government.

Under intense media scrutiny, Zijin’s pollution record has finally attracted attention, and the State Council, China’s highest administrative authority, has dispatched a working group to investigate and supervise the firm. But some say that the media were only able to turn on Zijin because it was controlled by a county government. If it had enjoyed more powerful backing, the media may not have been able to subject it to the same level of examination.

Zijin’s problems are not limited to Shanghang county. Its sites in Guizhou, south China, and Hebei, north China, have also seen major pollution incidents. And the company’s record overseas is no better. Writing for chinadialogue, Adina Matisoff, sustainable finance analyst at Friends of the Earth, pointed out that Zijin has also been punished for breaches of environmental law in Peru.

Today, Zijin is paying the price for its polluting activities. The Zijin Copper Mine has been shut down for rectification, while production at the company’s gold mine is to be cut due to environmental considerations. The firm will also have to invest hundreds of millions of yuan in water-treatment equipment and provide a new source of drinking water for the people of Shanghang. If it is also instructed to pay compensation for the losses suffered by fisherman due to the wastewater leak and the damage done to the environment, the figures involved will be considerable. On July 27, Zijin’s vice president and former head of the Zijin Copper Mine, Chen Jiahong, was detained by police on account of his involvement in a major pollution incident. It is not yet known if any more senior staff will fall.

In the end, strict environmental oversight is not necessarily a bad thing for a company. If Zijin had been prevented from building its wastewater pond on the banks of the Ting River and the necessary management structures and technology had been put in place, the accident could have been avoided and both the firm and its shareholders would not have suffered huge losses. If only polluting companies, and those local governments that aid them, would take this on board.

 

紫金矿业为何铤而走险

2010年9月7日 中外对话

紫金矿业造成的环境污染给公司的迅速崛起蒙上了阴影,污染企业及背后保护他们的官僚何时才能得到充分适当的监督

这段时间,紫金矿业可谓是最臭名昭著的中国上市企业之一。多家媒体披露了这家企业的种种污染行径,以及部分当地官员是如何沦为其保护伞的。

上世纪90年代,紫金矿业的前身还是一家名不见经传的小型国有公司。而今,它是中国最大的黄金生产企业和第二大铜矿企业,入选英国《金融时报》2009年度全球500强企业市值排行榜。紫金矿业还将其采矿版图延伸到俄罗斯、加拿大、秘鲁、南非、越南等多个国家。

紫金矿业赖以发家的本钱,是其总部所在地福建上杭县的紫金山金铜矿。这个矿山上部是金矿床,即紫金山金矿;下部为铜矿床,即紫金山铜矿。其董事长陈景河上世纪80年代在福建省闽西地质大队供职期间,主要任务就是勘探紫金山的储量。陈景河及其同事最初上报的金储量只有5.45吨,该矿山的开采权也因此被交给上杭县。

1992年,陈景河被上杭县作为特殊人才引进,负责紫金山金铜矿的开采。渐渐地,该矿山对外公开的金储量上升到数百吨,变身为中国国内黄金产量最大的单体矿山。对于紫金山金矿储量的飙升,陈景河2000年在《金属矿山》杂志撰文称,“运用经济地质理论重新评价紫金山金矿后,对该矿床的认识发生了根本变化”。不管是什么原因,紫金山金铜矿从“鸡肋”矿山演变为摇钱树。

后来,紫金矿业被改造为股份制企业,代表上杭县政府出资的闽西兴杭实业有限公司持有28.96%,表面上是第一大股东,但福建两位民营企业家陈发树和柯希平实际控制的公司,加上陈景河个人的持股总量已经超过上杭县政府。2003年和2008年,紫金矿业先后在香港和上海上市。

紫金矿业的迅猛发展,尤其是上海证券交易所A股上市后的大幅溢价,为陈发树、柯希平和陈景河等人带来了数十亿元人民币的套现回报。而当地一些官员要么持有紫金矿业股份,要么离任后受聘于紫金矿业,也是获益匪浅。

显然,紫金矿业让一部分人的腰包鼓了起来。如果这完全是合法的企业行为,本当无可厚非。不过,在紫金矿业多年的发展历程中,环保始终是一块短板。正因为此,少数人享受到紫金矿业发展带来的经济利益,但包括大多数上杭百姓在内的普罗大众,却不得不承受环境被污染的代价。

1997年,陈景河做出一件惊天动地的事情:大爆破几乎削平紫金山山头。紫金矿业自此实现露天开采,开采难度和开采成本降低,但紫金山自然环境遭到的破坏可想而知。今年8月2日,紫金矿业副总裁刘荣春在接受媒体采访时称,“大爆破经过了论证,有相关手续,取得了有权部门的许可”。

但明眼人都知道,与当地官员有着千丝万缕联系的紫金矿业,通过论证、取得许可并不是什么难事。和很多具有地方政府背景、或者与某些官员关系密切的中国企业一样,紫金矿业拥有在环保问题上铤而走险的资本。这之后,紫金矿业屡屡发生污染事故,但都能在当地政府庇护之下轻松化解。换句话说,其污染行为的经济成本相当低。

今年7月3日,紫金矿业紫金山铜矿湿法厂污水池泄漏,约9100立方米酸性含铜污水排入汀江,造成下游死鱼数百万斤。但无论是紫金矿业,还是作为公众利益守护者和上市企业大股东的上杭县政府,直到9天后才对外公布此次污染事故。我所在的《新世纪》周刊今年6月还披露,因为紫金矿业尾矿库的另一起污染事件,当地一些中学收到“请勿随意吃鱼”的通知。

在紫金矿业的一系列污染事件中,人们很难指望地方环保部门发挥监督作用。据称,从今年4月11日至7月17日的三个多月时间里,上杭县环保局设在紫金山下的自动监测站竟然“设备损坏”,未能提供任何数据。毕竟,地方环保部门是地方政府的组成部分,它们仅在业务上接受来自中央的环保部或者是上一级环保部门的指导。

环保部一旦失去地方环保部门的支持,难免耳目失聪。而且,即使环保部在有限的抽查中发现企业有违法违规行为,也缺少制约办法。紫金矿业在A股上市之前和上市之后,环保部都对其进行提出过环保方面的严厉警告,但紫金矿业似乎并不太把这样的警告放在心上。毫无疑问,中国的环保法规需要修改,环保部应当被赋予更大权力,地方环保部门也需要尽可能独立于地方政府。

经过媒体的密集报道之后,紫金矿业的污染问题终于引起高层关注,国务院派出一个联合工作组进驻紫金矿业。也有人说,紫金矿业只是一个县级政府控股的企业,所以被媒体狠狠地监督了一次;如果是一家更有来头的企业,其污染行径恐怕很难受到媒体监督。

紫金矿业的问题不仅仅出现在上杭县。近年来,该企业在贵州、河北等地都发生过严重的污染事故。此外,紫金矿业在海外的环境表现也不佳。美国地球之友艾迪娜·马蒂索芙就在中外对话撰文指出,紫金集团在秘鲁由于违反环境法律而受到处罚。

如今,紫金矿业正为其污染行为买单。紫金山金铜矿的铜矿正在停产整顿,金矿也将因为环保方面的要求而限产。紫金矿业还要投资数亿元人民币改造污水处理设施、并为上杭县居民开辟新的饮用水源地。如果紫金矿业需要补偿受到损害的渔民和遭到破坏的生态环境,其金额估计相当可观。7月27日,紫金矿业副总裁、原紫金山金铜矿矿长陈家洪因涉嫌重大环境污染事故罪,被公安机关刑事拘留。是否会有更高层次的人士落马,尚未可知。

实际上,严厉的环保监管对企业并不一定是坏事。如果在有效监管之下,紫金山铜矿湿法厂污水池不建在汀江的河道边上,技术和管理措施到位,污染事故或可避免,紫金矿业和股民也不会因此遭受重大损失。但愿污染企业,以及部分为虎作伥的地方政府能够明白这个道理。





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