Chinese media reports that police have made a big break in a toxic waste case that came to international attention after a restaurant owner died from inhaling poisonous gases coming from his kitchen drain.
Officials have traced the fumes back to highly toxic waste that the operator of a parking lot near the restaurant allowed allowed to be dumped on site, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
Between August 2014 and May 2015, the parking lot operator in the city of Baoding took payment from as many as 20 factories for the dumping of more than 3,400 tons of toxic waste, Xinhua said. Police arrested 27 suspects, according to the report.
While the death caused by this dumping has seen a full-scale investigation, it is merely one of many such incidents in a country that for decades has pushed for massive industrial and economic growth at the expense of the environment, says Jennifer Turner, director the Woodrow Wilson Center's China Environment Forum.
"This is not an uncommon thing that happened. This is an epidemic," said Turner, who explained that until recently the penalty for illegal dumping in China amounted to a single, "slap-on-the-hand fine" that sometimes made it cheaper for factories to pollute and pay than to properly dispose of toxic waste.
Baoding has a population of over 11 million and lies roughly 100 miles southwest of Beijing. In 2015 the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection found it to be the country's most polluted city. Baoding is in the same province, Hebei, as much of China's coal and steel industry and seven of the other top 10 most-polluted Chinese cities.
Air in Baoding — as in many other cities in China — regularly exceeds the level of pollution that the World Health Organization deems dangerous. According to a recent study, air pollution in China contributed to 1.6 million premature deaths in 2013 and this number is likely to continue rising, even as the country tries to cut its notorious levels of smog. China's so-called airpocalypse is a rising concern internationally, as well as domestically, but according to Turner, dumping toxic waste may have even more dire implications for the country's water.
In 2013, just under 60 percent of the groundwater in China's urban areas was classified as "very polluted," or "relatively polluted," according to a Ministry of Land and Resources study. Both of these statuses mean that water is unfit to drink without treatment, and Turner warned that the reality may be grimmer than official estimates suggest.
"The numbers are a bit dodgy, but there's general agreement that 30 to 35 percent of all the river and lake water in China is polluted to the level that it should not come into contact with humans," said Turner.
Pushed by political pressure from people living with endemic pollution, Turner said, China is beginning to crack down on polluters and work to disassemble the culture of corruption that often had local environmental bureaus turning a blind eye to illegal dumping at the behest of city governments. The shift has been facilitated by individual citizens and advocacy groups that use smartphones to photograph and report illegal waste disposal. In Beijing, Turner said, the ministries of environment and public housing have been crowdsourcing the effort to address water pollution, encouraging the public to send pictures and report the location of seemingly contaminated water.
While online watchdogs may be making it more difficult to ignore dangerous waste disposal, many on Chinese social media took a deeply ambivalent view of the news that the government had made arrests in the Baoding dumping case.
"Nobody gets caught if no one dies," wrote one person in a thread about the story on a news site run by Tencent QQ, a popular Chinese instant messaging app. "The environment pollution is just like chemical weapons."
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg