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Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China

When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride transforms into acids and poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people who breathe the air dizzy and can make their chests contract.

While it typically takes companies two years to get a polysilicon factory up and running properly, many Chinese companies are trying to do it in half that time or less, said Richard Winegarner, president of Sage Concepts, a California-based consulting firm.

As a result, Ren of Hebei Industrial University said, some Chinese plants are stockpiling the hazardous substances in the hopes that they can figure out a way to dispose of it later: "I know these factories began to store silicon tetrachloride in drums two years ago."

Pro-EnerTech's Shi says other companies -- including Luoyang Zhonggui -- are just dumping wherever they can.

"Theoretically, companies should collect it all, process it to get rid of the poisonous stuff, then release it or recycle. Zhonggui currently doesn't have the technology. Now they are just releasing it directly into the air," said Shi, who recently visited the factory.

Shi estimates that Chinese companies are saving millions of dollars by not installing pollution recovery.

He said that if environmental protection technology is used, the cost to produce one ton is approximately $84,500. But Chinese companies are making it at $21,000 to $56,000a ton.

In sharp contrast to the gleaming white buildings in Zhonggui's new gated complex in Gaolong, the situation in the villages surrounding it is bleak.

About nine months ago, residents of Li's village, which begins about 50 yards from the plant, noticed that their crops were wilting under a dusting of white powder. Sometimes, there was a hazy cloud up to three feet high near the dumping site; one person tending crops there fainted, several villagers said. Small rocks began to accumulate in kettles used for boiling faucet water.

Each night, villagers said, the factory's chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath. "It's poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can't sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows," said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who said he worries about his 1-year-old son's health.

The villagers said most obvious evidence of the pollution is the dumping, up to 10 times a day, of the liquid waste into what was formerly a grassy field. Eventually, the whole area turned white, like snow.

The worst part, said Li, 53, who lives with his son and granddaughter in the village, is that "they go outside the gates of their own compound to dump waste."

"We didn't know how bad it was until the August harvest, until things started dying," he said.

Early this year, one of the villagers put some of the contaminated soil in a plastic bag and went to the local environmental bureau. They never got back to him.

Zhang Zhenguo, 45, a farmer and small businessman, said he has a theory as to why: "They didn't test it because the government supports the plant."

Researchers Wu Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.

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