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Illegal coal mining at Muli coalfield in Qinghai, China


Description:

The open-pit Muli coalfield is located at the border of Tianjun County in Qinghai Haixi Mongolian Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Gangcha County in Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which are on a remote alpine plateau at an altitude of over 4,000m near Qilian Mountains in Qinghai Province in northwest China.  [1] The Muli coalfield has an area of 112.6 km2 with 3.5 billion tonnes of identified coal reserves, more than 87% of Qinghai’s total. It consists of four opencast coal mine sites, namely Jiancang (建仓), Juhugeng (巨乎更), Duosuogongma (哆嗦贡马) and Hushan (弧山) coal mine. The former two had been extracting on a large scale since 2003 and the latter two were at the verge of opening as of 2014. [2]

The mining at Muli coalfield was undertaken by a handful of private firms, with China Kingho Energy Group mining at the largest scale. Kingho Group started to develop the Muli coalfield in 2003, with a total investment of CNY 295 million (USD 47.83 million) in the field. [3] Other than coal mines, the Group has built a complete coal industry chain in the area, with a coal chemical plant 90 miles away from the mines.[4] Other firms involved included Qinghai Yihai Energy Co, Qinghai Coking Coal Group, Aokai Group, and China Railway Group.[1]

Greenpeace published an investigation report on the illegal coal mining activities of the Muli coalfield in August 2014, based on evidence gathered on seven separate field trips to the remote region between 2012 and 2014 along with satellite images. The report disclosed in detail the pollution and damage to the ecological environment caused by the mining activities, which were also in violation of national and local regulations.

It was disclosed by the Greenpeace report that the two operational mines (Jiancang and Juhugeng) had resulted in the loss of 42.6 km2 of pristine meadows according to calculations based on satellite data by 2013. [1] The Greenpeace report indicates that “the opencast coal mining destroyed the alpine meadows connecting the glaciers on the mountains and the plateau, cutting off the channel for rainfall and melt water to feed into river. As a result, the water-holding capacity of the landscape is significantly compromised.”[5] A representative of Greenpeace commented that “this huge coal mine dug into the birthplace of China’s mother river (Yellow River) is arguably the most shocking example of the threat coal poses to the country’s water supply”. [6]

According to Greenpeace, the coal development at Muli coal field violated a number of water protection laws and nature reserve regulations. [3] The Jiancang and Juhugeng mines are located in the Qilian Mountains National Ecological Functional Zone for Glacier and Water conservation, and the two new ones had their facilities set up in the Qinghai Qilian Mountains Sanheyuan Nature Reserve (Sanheyuan stands for the sources of three rivers, namely Datong, Shule and Buha River), which is supposedly an even stricter conservation area. [1] A Greenpeace representative mentioned that it is in violation of China’s nature reserve law to do any large-scale operations within nature reserves.[4]

According to local herders living close to one of the coal mines, they were given tens of thousands of Chinese yuan in compensation when the mine took over the pastures. However, he would rather go back to the way they used to live as they could drink water from the river that flows down from the mountains, which got polluted and filthy due to coal mining activities. As an alternative, the mining company drilled wells to provide free drinking water to the locals. In addition to water pollution, the mining operations also led to significant noise pollution due to the blasting activities and polluted the air and pasture with coal ashes and dust. [6] The herders complained that their cattle/yak became weaker and the sheep developed cough after eating the grass polluted by the coal mining dust. When the blasting activities were intense, the local residents were afraid to stay inside their houses as it felt like earthquakes. According to a report by the local government of Muli Town, which had a population of 1,233 as of 2017[7], the town’s administration building suffered from land subsidence with many cracks and could not be used safely. [2]

Greenpeace found that the company and government have not systematically assessed the mining projects’ impact on the surrounding ecosystem before the project started. There was an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for the coalfield in 2010, which found that two parts of the coalfield overlapped with a buffer area of the nature reserve. Despite the warning of the ministry of environmental protection to local authorities that they should ban mining and contain the coalfield’s scale, the mines went ahead with plans to expand.[4] According to an expert that contributed to the EIA for the Muli coalfield, they pointed out the importance of permafrost for the maintenance of regional water resources and that open-pit mining is highly destructive of permafrost, yet their suggestion for changing open-pit mining to mine shafts which may lessen the damage to the permafrost was not implemented. [2]

Furthermore, it was reported that the Qinghai provincial government adjusted the boundaries of the Sanheyuan Nature Reserve in August 2013 and it was approved by the ministry of environmental protection, which led to a loss of almost 90,000 hectares, 5% of its total area, and thus left the two planned mining sites (Duosuogongma and Hushan coal mine) outside of its boundaries. The Qinghai Environmental Protection Office did not provide any reason for the change. Some comments by local officials gave a hint that there was the tension between environmental protection and economic development in Qinghai, since the province is one of the poorest considering provincial GDP as the benchmark, while the coal reserve in Muli could provide a major source of energy for the province’s “circular economy zone”. [8][9] According to the government work report by the Tianjun County where Muli Town belongs to, Tianjun County with only 30,000 population created more than CNY 3 billion GDP in 2010 when coal was still a rather profitable business. However, Muli Town suffered from the pollution of mining activities which resulted in the relocation of local residents to the center of the Tianjun County that is 150 km away and left Muli an empty town. A local Tibetan Buddism temple named Sang Qie Qi Ke Lang Temple was also closed and relocated. [2]

After the publication of the Greenpeace report, the environmental pollution issue of Muli coalfield received the attention of the central government. Representatives from the Qinghai provincial government inspected the Muli coalfield in person and provided guidance regarding ecological restoration and environmental governance.[10] The “Implementation Plan for Comprehensive Improvement of Ecological Environment in Muli Mining Area" was reviewed and approved by the State Council. A total investment of CNY 2.05 billion (USD 0.29 billion) was drawn by different stakeholders in order to restore 19 coal ash dunes which covered an area of 0.65 million m2.[11] It was reported from revisits to the Muli coalfield in 2018 and 2019 that the restoration has been successful. According to a company representative from Tianjun Yihai Energy Coal Operation Co Ltd (formerly known as Qinghai Yihai Energy Company), which is currently the only company operating at Muli coalfield, the company has invested more than CNY 1.1 billion (USD 0.16 billion) into solving the historical environmental issues. The company had worked with universities and research institutions to explore the optimal plantation for restoration and had restored 3.39 million m2 of area which was covered with coal ashes and the slopes resulted from coal extraction. The planted grass survival rate reached 90%.[12] Wild animals including fox, donkey and wolf began to come back to the area. The local herders could also graze freely at the restored pastures in the mining area with better quality of grasses for their livestock such as yak.[12]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Illegal coal mining at Muli coalfield in Qinghai, China
Country:China
State or province:Qinghai Province
Location of conflict:Muli Town, Tianjun County (天峻县木里镇)
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Coal extraction and processing
Other
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific commodities:Coal

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The Muli coalfield has an area of 112.6 km2 (11,260 ha) with 3.5 billion tonnes of identified coal reserves. It consists of four opencast coal mine sites, namely Jiancang (建仓), Juhugeng (巨乎更), Duosuogongma (哆嗦贡马) and Hushan (弧山) coal mine. The former two had been extracting on a large scale since 2003 and the latter two were at the verge of opening as of 2014.[2]

The mining at Muli coalfield was undertaken by a handful of private firms, with China Kingho Energy Group mining at the largest scale. Kingho Group started to develop the Muli coalfield in 2003, with a total investment of CNY 295 million (USD 47.83 million) in the field. [3] Other than coal mines, the Group has built a complete coal industry chain in the area, with a coal chemical plant 90 miles away from the mines.[4] Other firms involved included Qinghai Yihai Energy Co, Qinghai Coking Coal Group, Aokai Group, and China Railway Construction Corporation.[1] As of 2019, Tianjun Yihai Energy Coal Operation Co Ltd (formerly known as Qinghai Yihai Energy), is the only company still operating at Muli coalfield, which invested more than CNY 1.1 billion (USD 0.16 billion) into solving the historical environmental issues from coal mining activities.[12]

Project area:11,260 ha
Level of Investment for the conflictive project47,830,000.00
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1,233 (population of Muli Town as of 2017)
Start of the conflict:01/08/2014
End of the conflict:16/11/2015
Company names or state enterprises:Qinghai Coking Coal Group from China - Coal mining
China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) from China - Coal mining / transport
Tianjun Yihai Energy Coal Operation Co Ltd (formerly known as Qinghai Yihai Energy Company) (Tianjun Yihai) from China - The only company involved in coal mining at Muli coalfield as of 2019
Aokai Group from China - One of the companies involved in coal mining activities
China Kingho Energy Group Co., Ltd. (China Kingho) from China - Main company involved in the Muli coalfields in the early development stage
Relevant government actors:- Qinghai provincial government (青海省政府);
- Qinghai Environmental Protection Department (青海环保厅);
- State Council (国务院);
- Muli Town Municipality (木里镇政府);
- Tianjun County Forest and Environmental Protection Bureau Environmental Monitoring Team (天峻县林业和环保局环境监测大队)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Greenpeace (https://www.greenpeace.org.cn/qinghai-illegal-mining-report)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Pastoralists
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Arguments for the rights of mother nature

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Waste overflow, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsSubsidence - buildings such as the village’s administration building suffered from land subsidence with many cracks and could not be used safely.[2]
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsThe herders complained that their cattle/yak became weaker and the sheep developed cough after eating the grass polluted by the coal mining dust. [2]
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsThe herders complained that their cattle/yak became weaker and the sheep developed cough after eating the grass polluted by the coal mining dust. This affects their income from livestock.

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Application of existing regulations
Proposal and development of alternatives:Greenpeace came up with three major suggestions as part of its investigation report: 1) Enhance the implementation of the new environmental protection law and other related regulations to ensure that the nature reserve and ecological function areas are well protected without being destructed by mining and industrial activities 2) Immediate halt of the illegal mining activities at Jiangcang and Juhugeng area; punish the companies that had violated existing regulations 3) Immediate halt of the illegal projects at Duosuogongma and Hushan area and removal of activities that are in the nature reserve area from the Overal Plan of Mulil Coalfield.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The report by Greenpeace and the related media exposure has caught significant attention of the central and provincial government, which ensured serious follow-up as well as systematic monitoring and supervision of the ecological restoration of the Muli coalfield area. Media report also demonstrated that significant investment had been made into the ecological restoration and that the improvement of the environment was significant after five years. However, it is worth to note that before the Greenpeace report came out, the illegal mining and environmental destruction activities took place for years and it is not known whether the permafrost which took long time to form could still be recovered after the initial destruction by the mining activities. Besides, the displacement of villagers at Muli Town already took place (relocated to Tianjun County that is 150km away) and the impact on the livelihood of the villagers is almost irreversible.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

中华人民共和国自然保护区条例 (Regulations of the People's Republic of China on Nature Reserves)
http://www.gov.cn/flfg/2005-09/27/content_70636.htm

中华人民共和国环境保护法 (Environmental Protection Law of the People's Republic of China)
http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2014-04/25/content_2666434.htm

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

CAO Wei,SHENG Yu and CHEN Ji, 2008, 青海木里煤田冻土环境评价研究
http://tow.cnki.net/kcms/detail/detail.aspx?filename=BCDT200801024&dbcode=CRJT_CJFD&dbname=CRJT_CJFDTOTAL&v=

Dawen Qian & Changzhen Yan & Zanpin Xing & Lina Xiu, 2017, Monitoring coal mine changes and their impact on landscape patterns in an alpine region: a case study of the Muli coal mine in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10661-017-6284-9

[1] C. Ottery, “Exposed: Coal mining at the source of China’s Yellow River,” Unearthed, Aug. 2014. (accessed May 11, 2020).
https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2014/08/05/exposed-coal-mining-source-chinas-yellow-river/

[2] 澎湃新闻网, “青海砍掉5%保护区让位采矿 国家生态功能区告急,” CNR(央广网), Aug. 07, 2014. (accessed May 26, 2020).
http://news.cnr.cn/native/gd/201408/t20140807_516157777.shtml

[3] W. Yue, “Greenpeace: Kingho Group’s Mining Operation Endangers Qinghai Plateau,” Forbes, Aug. 07, 2014. (accessed May 10, 2020).
https://www.forbes.com/sites/ywang/2014/08/07/greenpeace-kingho-groups-mining-operation-endangers-qinghai-plateau/#66bdd6d42fd2

[4] J. Kaiman, “Illegal coal mine encroaching on nature reserve in north-west China,” The Guardian, Aug. 07, 2014. (accessed May 10, 2020).
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/aug/07/illegal-coal-mine-nature-reserve-china

[5] Greenpeace China, “Qilianshan illeagal coal mining investigation report,” Aug. 2014. Accessed: May 11, 2020. [Online].
http://www.greenpeace.cn/news/qinghai-qilianshan-illegal-coal-mining.pdf

[6] “Alpine meadows disappear under opencast mines in northwest China ,” ChinaDialogue, Aug. 07, 2014. (accessed May 10, 2020).
https://www.chinadialogue.net/blog/7205-Alpine-meadows-disappear-under-opencast-mines-in-northwest-China/en

[7] “木里镇_百度百科,” Baidu Baike (百度百科). (accessed Jun. 12, 2020).
https://baike.baidu.com/item/木里镇

[8] S. Yi, “Qinghai nature reserve shrunk to make way for mines,” The Paper (澎湃新闻网), Aug. 11, 2014. (accessed May 26, 2020).
https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/7214-Qinghai-nature-reserve-shrunk-to-make-way-for-mines

[9] H. Deng, “风吹草低见黑矿,牛羊家归何方?,” China News (中国新闻网), Aug. 08, 2014. (accessed May 27, 2020).
http://www.chinanews.com/ny/2014/08-08/6475984.shtml

[10] “将环境破坏者暴晒在阳光下,” Greenpeace, Feb. 12, 2015. (accessed Jun. 11, 2020).
https://www.greenpeace.org.cn/explosure-environmental-issue/

[11] S. Wang and L. Wang, “把草原还给草原——青海木里矿区生态修复纪实,” China Natural Resource Newspaper (中国自然资源报), Nov. 21, 2019 (accessed Jun. 11, 2020).
http://www.iziran.net/2019/1121/121320.shtml

[12] K. Chen and Y. Li, “煤田成牧场 动物有‘天堂’——青海木里煤田生态治理回访见闻,” Xinhua News (新华网), Nov. 28, 2019. (accessed Jun. 11, 2020).
http://www.xinhuanet.com/local/2019-11/28/c_1125286765.htm

Meta information

Contributor:Dr Julian Bloomer; EnvJustice, ICTA-UAB/BG
Last update15/06/2020
Conflict ID:1602

Images

 

An open pit coal mine owned by Kingho Group

An open pit coal mine owned by Kingho Group left a huge pit in the alpine meadows next to the snowfields in the Qilian Mountains. Photo credit: Greenpeace, Wu Haitao, June 2014. [5]

Panorama of the coalification park

Panorama of the coalification park owned by the Kingho Group at Wulan County in Qinghai. Photo credit: Greenpeace, Wu Haitao, 2014. [5]

Frozen soil layer destroyed

The frozen soil layer was destroyed due to the coal ashes that were piled up above. Photo credit: The Paper (澎湃新闻网) [2]

Location of the coal mines at Muli coalfield

The location of the four coal mines at Muli coalfield, which are immediately next to the Qilian Mountain and the nature reserve area. Photo credit: The Paper (澎湃新闻网)[2]

Yak herd grazing on the polluted pasture

The pasture was polluted with coal dust by coal transportation trucks that passed by. According to local herders, the yak got thinner and sick. Photo credit: The Paper (澎湃新闻网)[2]

Excavators working in an opencast coalmine at Muli coalfield

In the Muli coalfield, coal mining is mainly carried out between the mountains and the river, causing severe damage to the meadows and wetland. Photo credit: Greenpeace, Wu Haitao, 14 June 2014. [5]