August 25, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey wastewater in Shanghai


Damn the fish, we need more smut!

As a lover of printed matter and tactics of protest, it is with interest that I read the news of a massive demonstration this past Saturday in Qidong, an eastern suburb of Nantong, China in reaction to a planned wastewater pipeline for a paper processing facility near Shanghai.

Protestors there stormed local government offices Saturday morning and clashed with police (see a series of incredible photographs in the Wall Street Journal) in an outcry over the pipeline, which had been slated to connect a plant run by Oji Paper to the Yellow Sea. Most protesters seemed focused on environmental concerns, though The Japan Times also cites nationalist motivations. Oji is a Japanese company, and never-sunny relations between the nations have been further overcast by an ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

Oji, which operates a series of plants and packaging facilities just west of Shanghai, had already announced a suspension of the pipeline project at news of the planned protest, but the protest went on as scheduled, organized largely online. The number of estimated protesters varies by orders of magnitude depending on accounts, with Reuters claiming 1,000, The Japan Times 5,000, Asahi Shimbun 10,000 and a protester quoted by Agence France Presse claiming 50,000 attendees. Protesters finally dispersed when Zhang Guohua, mayor of Nantong, announced an immediate cancellation of the pipeline plan. Saturday’s action followed another massive and successful protest in Shifeng earlier this month over a planned copper alloy plant there.

Oji Paper released a statement saying, in part, “we don’t release ‘polluted water,’ as we are currently releasing water after purification that meets local environmental standards.”

“Local environmental standards” is, of course, a rather loaded turn of phrase. Wastewater from paper treatment plants is a notorious source of pollutants, the most dangerous elements being chlorine from the bleaching process and varied forms of dioxins and halides, both carcinogens. In the US, current wastewater treatment regulations for paper mills date to 2002 , and many of their more stringent regulations are hobbled by a business-friendly program of voluntary enrollment.

In China air and water pollutant rules are enforced by levies, but at the local government level. In practice this has meant more leniency and perhaps more corruption, and the levy rates themselves are under criticism for being too low to be a proper disincentive.

The majority of American trade books—including those by Melville House—are produced domestically, though paper sources vary widely. Oji Paper themselves have a plant in Ware, Massachusetts and it is one of their largest, producing various thermal and inkjet paper products. Their Chinese plants, too, seem to be dedicated more to the production of thermal papers, paper packaging materials—bags and cardboard boxes—or paper towels, but I choose to believe that they are working day and night at a furious pace merely to produce enough paper to fill the gaping hungry maw of the E.L. James readership. All those millions of pages of sex dungeonry must be coming from somewhere.

Could Americans stage a similar protest over specific environmental issues, say fracking or, I don’t know, the now-inevitable heat death of the planet as we know it? Environmental concerns were always a prominent plank among stated goals of Occupy movements around the country, and while the current congealing around issues of debt, primarily student debt, seems a smart tactical decision, I wonder whether even more could have been effected if our nation’s own recent pipeline protests had been both more populous and more willing to loot bottles of whiskey from government desks. 

Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.