Pollution photo

Islands of garbage so thick people can stand on them are threatening China’s massive Three Gorges Dam, according to Chinese state media.

Recent heavy rains have washed thousands of tons of trash down the Yangtze River, and it threatens to jam the locks of the enormous dam, which is itself environmentally controversial.

The China Daily says 3,000 tons of garbage is being collected every day, but there is not enough manpower to clean it all up. The waste could jam the gates of the locks at the dam, which allow shipping to pass through the river.

Garbage is an everyday problem on the Yangtze — the China Three Gorges Corporation spends about $1.5 million a year to clean it up — although the China Daily reports it has been decreasing in recent years. But torrential rain washed an unusually high amount of waste, including tree branches, plastic bottles and other domestic garbage, into the river in recent weeks.

More than 150 million people live upstream from the dam, and in several cities, household waste is dumped directly into the river.

The trash covers an area of about 540,000 square feet and is about two feet thick. In some spots, it’s dense enough that people can walk on it, the Hubei Daily newspaper reported. Pictures showed barges covered in detritus and workers sorting through a mess of bottles, branches and Styrofoam. Workers brought in cranes to sift through the trash.

Chen Lei, director of the water project department under the China Three Gorges Corporation, told China Daily the garbage could damage boats, and the decaying trash could impact water quality.

The China Three Gorges Corp. collects between 5 million and 7 million cubic feet of floating waste from the dam every year. Last year it was 5.6 million cubic feet, the China Daily reports.

The dam is the world’s largest hydropower project, and was built partly to tame flooding along the Yangtze, Reuters reports. It cost more than $37.5 billion and the reservoir construction required the relocation of 1.3 million people. Environmentalists have long warned that the reservoir could turn into a cesspool of raw sewage and industrial chemicals, Reuters notes.

[China Daily, Reuters]