Fluoride Action Network

Fluoride pollution from aluminum plant in Tibet

Source: The Age (Australia) | February 27th, 2001 | by Gabriel Lafitte
Location: Tibet
Industry type: Aluminum Industry

The ancient bus toiled up through golden canola fields and ripening apricot orchards, stopping only for a quick lunch at a Muslim restaurant before resuming the long climb. Could this really be Tibet? Outside were whitecapped Muslims and Chinese checkpoints, but in the bus Tibetan nomads, their city business done, were on their way home to the mountains.

From the window, signs of Tibetan culture gradually appeared. Prayer flags mingled with television antennas. The valleys narrowed, the mountains came closer, streams ran faster, the Tibetans aboard sang and joked. White Buddhist shrines stood in the fields of ripening wheat, guarding the power places of the valleys.

Coming from the utterly Chinese city of Xining, on the edge of Tibet, the transition to an authentically Tibetan environment is slow. But here we were, in a village of Tibetan farmers, their ancient irrigation channels swiftly flowing, the women weeding the waisthigh green wheat, making their supple way through the crop without damaging an ear.

It was a picture postcard of Tibetan tranquillity, I thought as I wandered the narrow lanes between mudwalled houses. It looked timeless, except for the massive power pylons along the road, far from the restless pace of the Internet, the accelerating speed of globalisation. Yet it was this arcadian idyll that propelled me into a contest over multibilliondollar plans to globalise even these villagers.

Not until some of the village elders gathered was my tourist fantasy burst. They had an urgent message for the outside world, which they asked this rare visitor to convey. “Look further up the valley,” the oldest man said. Upstream, I made out a large squat industrial building shrouded in white smoke. Only its chimney stood clear. “That’s the aluminium smelter,” the old man said. “The smoke settles on the hillsides. If we let our sheep or donkeys out to graze, their teeth turn yellow and brittle, then fall out. Our animals starve, and we lose our livelihood. Can’t you tell the United Nations about this? If nothing is done the smelter will kill us.”

I couldn’t imagine the UN or any official institution being willing to intervene in China’s business. “Isn’t there some way you can tell the authorities and get some action?” I asked. “You don’t understand. We can say nothing, even if it’s against China’s law to put such a factory right in the heart of our valley, because anything we say is labelled as Tibetan splittism, nationalism which is punished mercilessly. The only people we could take any complaint to are the cadres of the county government, and it is they who set up and own this factory. It employs their relatives. There is nowhere for us to turn.”

All I could do was take photos. The closer I got to the factory, the filthier it appeared. This was an environmental tragedy, but what could anyone do? I felt helpless. On my return to Australia I remembered the hero of my adolescence, Izzy Stone, who uncovered the darker side of America’s war in Vietnam and much else. Stone had a simple belief that in the modern world, disastrous policies generate enormous paper trails: reports, studies, project design documents, committee minutes, official approvals. When stitched together, they form a damning picture of how the best and brightest minds can do horrific things. Since those days, I’d spent much time with Tibetans, who have a similarly unflagging faith that if only the world gets to know of their sufferings, the world will act to set them free. But the real world is too busy to care, and everything gets faster.

Unlike Izzy Stone, I had access to the Internet, a globalised deluge of data from which I might piece together a coherent narrative. In China, it is a crime punishable by death to reveal state secrets online, and the state defines and redefines its secrets at any time. The Tongren County Aluminium Smelter may prefer its backblock Tibetan obscurity to the global gaze of the Web, but surely there was useful information out there somewhere.

I found out that aluminium smelters can readily install endofthepipe technology to treat the smoke and remove toxic fluoride. Major smelters such as Portland, partly owned by the Chinese Government, take care to abide by the rules and filter out the fluoride. But why hadn’t anyone done so in Tibet?

I searched the daily online English editions of China Daily and People’s Daily. They speak for a government determined to be upbeat and admit few problems. They announced China’s first nationwide electricity grid, to remove hydro power from Tibet for the wealthy consumers of the booming coastal cities. More hydro dams on the Tibetan stretch of the Yellow River, more aluminium cable to carry power eastward, more efficient exploitation of Tibet, were all part of the march of progress.

But was there a downside? What would be the environmental and human cost of these grand plans? China’s media are no place to find investigative journalism. If there was another side to the story, I would have to piece it together, as Izzy Stone did, slowly and laboriously.

The US Geological Survey site gave me hard figures on China’s hunger for aluminium and demand for the massive electricity consumption needed to smelt it. An American company, Kaiser, had teamed with Chinese smelters just downstream of Tibet, only to pull out a year later when Chinese Government ministries had been unable to fulfil their promises of electricity for the smelters. Not only was the jigsaw filling, it was starting to look as if foreign investors might be directly involved. This would be a shock to Tibetans, who must now face the prospect that they are no longer beyond the frontiers of globalisation. But it would galvanise the cyber warriors, the global online community of activists using global technology to oppose globalisation’s obliteration of everything local, unique and authentic. My hacktivist friends in the US would want to know if a US corporation was a key player in Tibet’s industrialisation. It would give them leverage, making it a domestic issue about American values. The new worldwide cyber activist community has an ability to stage imaginative actions that capture media attention. All they need is someone to do the research. That research can be done as well in a Collingwood cottage as in a sleek think tank in Washington…

…The Tongren smelter continues to belch toxic smoke laced with fluoride. There are many struggles yet to be won.



Students for a Free Tibet
December 4, 2001


Contact: Lhadon Tethong or Alma David (212) 358-0071 New York City

Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) today announced its opposition to the initial public offering (IPO) of Chalco, China’s largest producer of aluminum. The IPO, being underwritten by Morgan Stanley, is scheduled to be priced today and to debut on the New York Stock Exchange on December 11. Chalco’s primary aluminum smelting facility is located in Chinese occupied Tibet, near the city of Ziling (Chinese: Xining). Tibetans and supporters oppose American investment in Chalco because of the destructive impacts the smelting facility’s operations could have on the Tibetan people and fragile ecosystem.

An environmental review of the plant, conducted by an independent Australian engineering organization for Chalco, found that Chinese government regulated emission levels at the plant had been exceeded. There have been reported cases nearby the Qinghai plant of sheep losing their teeth and starving to death after having been poisoned by fluoride contaminated grass. As a result of their deaths the local Tibetan herders are losing their livelihood.

“Chinese aluminum plants are poisoning my country and impoverishing my people,” said Lhadon Tethong, Projects Coordinator for Students for a Free Tibet. “Morgan Stanley will be well advised to postpone the offering until they can prove that Tibetans are not being harmed by the company they are underwriting.”

The “Go West Campaign” is the Chinese government’s current attempt to aggressively court foreign investment in development projects in occupied Tibet. By locking foreign capital into resource extraction projects, the Chinese government hopes to solidify its grip on its restive western regions. Tibetans and supporters point out that development projects serve the Chinese government’s aim to turn Tibet into a resource extraction colony and to lure Chinese settlers to Tibet, thereby diluting the indigenous Tibetan population.

“Chinese government development projects in Tibet harm rather than improve Tibetan lives. This fits right into China’s tactics of forced abortions, arbitrary imprisonment, and population transfer – China’s campaign of cultural genocide to wipe my people and their culture and identity right off the face of the earth.” said Tethong. “Morgan Stanley, by brokering this offering, is complicit in the destruction of Tibet.”

When PetroChina, a Chinese state-owned oil company announced its plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange last year, Students for a Free Tibet and a coalition of Tibetan, human rights, national security, environmental and labor organizations launched a widely publicized campaign against PetroChina. This caused the IPO to drop from the initially proposed $10 billion to $2.89 billion.

“Tibetans and supporters will oppose this offering,” said Alma David, Grassroots Coordinator for Students for a Free Tibet. “We are already concerned with Morgan Stanley’s role in facilitating Western investment in harmful projects in Tibet. We will make sure that they understand that the Tibet issue cannot be ignored and will not go away.”



December 8, 2001


Dear Mr. Purcell,

The Central Tibetan Administration is deeply concerned about your brokering of Chalco’s initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange on December 11, 2001. Chalco’s operations in Tibet will negatively impact the Tibetan ecosystem as well as the Tibetan people. We, therefore, urge Morgan Stanley to postpone the offering until the potential damage to Tibet and the Tibetan people has been closely examined, evaluated and conclusively found to be nonexistent.

The Central Tibetan Administration’s position with respect to development and investment in Tibet is clear: it supports projects that benefit the Tibetan people and opposes those that cause harm to them. We have put forward a set of Guidelines for International Development Projects and Sustainable Investment in Tibet to assist potential investors, corporations and donor agencies interested in working in Tibet to determine which projects should be encouraged and which ones should be discouraged and opposed. The main goal of the Guidelines is to foster sustainable development in the Tibetan Plateau that will enhance the ability of the Tibetan people to fully participate in the development of their land and to control their natural resources.

Thus, projects that empower Tibetans, improve their education, provide appropriate employment for Tibetans, protect the natural environment, promote Tibetan culture, national identity and language besides improving the living conditions of Tibetans can be useful. On the other hand, projects that facilitate the transfer of Chinese into Tibetan areas, employ sizeable numbers of Chinese, deplete natural resources in Tibet, transfer ownership of land to non-Tibetans, facilitate erosion of Tibetan culture and identity, and perpetrate the economic marginalization of Tibetans in Tibetan areas are clearly harmful and should be stopped. Clearly, under the present circumstances not all development projects in Tibet are in the best interest of Tibetans. Hence, we urge all foreign corporations and investors involved in economic development projects in Tibet to examine their activities carefully in light of these Guidelines. Projects that adversely effect Tibetan society and environment must be immediately stopped and redesigned or cancelled.

Our worries about your financial support for Chalco concern that company’s operations in Amdo, a province in eastern Tibet. Chalco’s primary aluminum smelting facility is the Qinghai Smelting Plant, located near Ziling (Chinese: Xining). The Central Tibetan Administration is foremost concerned that Chalco’s operations in Amdo will result in the following:

* Pollute the areas surrounding the Qinghai plant through emission of fluoride laden gases, which poison the vegetation and local animal herds (see below)

* Facilitate the transfer of Chinese settlers and workers to Tibetan areas and employ only a few Tibetans in unskilled labor positions

* Contribute to the need for more hydroelectric energy, possibly bringing about the construction of further dams that will cause riverbed erosion and the forceful resettlement of entire communities

* Transfer of the land on which the Haixing smelting facility is being built to Chinese state-owned land (see below).

Chalco’s preliminary prospectus discloses that the environmental review conducted by Worley Chemicals & Minerals Pty Ltd found that “airborne emission limits set by the Chinese regulatory authorities (…) have been exceeded at Qinghai.” (Pg. B17) The Central Tibetan Administration urges you to ensure that Chalco release the entire analysis and report compiled by Worley Chemicals & Minerals Pty Ltd to the public and to us, so that we may learn in greater detail what Chalco’s impact on Tibet’s environmental integrity will be. The summary report mentions that social impacts of Chalco’s facilities were reviewed (Pg. B17) and the results of this review should also be released and examined to ensure that Tibetans will not be harmed by Chalco’s operations in Tibet.

The prospectus also states that “The Haixing facility occupied collectively-owned land in respect of which application has been made to the relevant land administrative authorities for conversion of the land into state-owned land before it can be either granted to us or leased to us from such authorities” (Pg. 128).

The Central Tibetan Administration is concerned that the land will be transferred from Tibetan ownership to Chinese state-ownership, which would violate the Guidelines we have set forth for development projects.

Please know that Tibetans will actively oppose any project that furthers the destruction of the Tibetan environment and the disenfranchisement of the Tibetan people.


Samdhong Rinpoche
Chairman of the Cabinet
Central Tibetan Admnistration