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Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China

"The recycling technology is of course being thought about, but currently it's still not mature," said Shi Jun, a former photovoltaic technology researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Shi, chief executive of Pro-EnerTech, a start-up polysilicon research firm in Shanghai, said that there's such a severe shortage of polysilicon that the government is willing to overlook this issue for now.

"If this happened in the United States, you'd probably be arrested," he said.

An independent, nationally accredited laboratory analyzed a sample of dirt from the dump site near the Luoyang Zhonggui plant at the request of The Washington Post. The tests show high concentrations of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, which can result from the breakdown of silicon tetrachloride and do not exist naturally in soil. "Crops cannot grow on this, and it is not suitable for people to live nearby," said Li Xiaoping, deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Wang Hailong, secretary of the board of directors for Luoyang Zhonggui, said it is "impossible" to think that the company would dump large amounts of waste into a residential area. "Some of the villagers did not tell the truth," he said.

However, Wang said the company does release a "minimal amount of waste" in compliance with all environmental regulations. "We release it in a certain place in a certain way. Before it is released, it has gone through strict treatment procedures."

Yi Xusheng, the head of monitoring for the Henan Province Environmental Protection Agency, said the factory had passed a review before it opened, but that "it's possible that there are some pollutants in the production process" that inspectors were not aware of. Yi said the agency would investigate.

In 2005, when residents of Li's village, Shiniu, heard that a new solar energy company would be building a factory nearby, they celebrated.

The impoverished farming community of roughly 2,300, near the eastern end of the Silk Road, had been left behind during China's recent boom. In a country where the average wage in some areas has climbed to $200 a month, many of the village's residents make just $200 a year. They had high hopes their new neighbor would jump-start the local economy and help transform the area into an industrial hub.

The Luoyang Zhonggui factory grew out of an effort by a national research institute to improve on a 50-year-old polysilicon refining technology pioneered by Germany's Siemens. Concerned about intellectual property issues, Siemens has held off on selling its technology to the Chinese. So the Chinese have tried to create their own.

Last year, the Luoyang Zhonggui factory was estimated to have produced less than 300 tons of polysilicon, but it aims to increase that tenfold this year -- making it China's largest operating plant. It is a key supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong recently topped the list of the richest people in China.

Made from the Earth's most abundant substance -- sand -- polysilicon is tricky to manufacture. It requires huge amounts of energy, and even a small misstep in the production can introduce impurities and ruin an entire batch. The other main challenge is dealing with the waste. For each ton of polysilicon produced, the process generates at least four tons of silicon tetrachloride liquid waste.

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