Over the past few years, China has been carrying out a startling plan to flatten 700 mountains and shovel the debris into valleys, in order to create 155 square miles of land where brand-new cities can be built.

State-controlled Chinese TV has even touted the supposed environmental benefits of the massive undertaking, boasting that flattening mountains in Gansu province for a 500,000-inhabitant metropolis called Lanzhou New Area would “lead to the creation of a environmentally sustainable economy based on energy-saving industries.“ 

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But an article published this week by three Chinese academics in the journal Nature warns that the massive project, which bears similarities to mountaintop removal mining in the United States but is vastly larger in scale, runs the risk of creating nightmarish erosion in addition to water and air pollution problems.

“The consequences of these unprecedented programs have not been thought through — environmentally, technically or economically,” wrote Peiyue Li, assistant professor of hydrogeology and environmental science in Chang’an University, and couthors Hui Qian and Jianhua Wu.

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The article describes particularly devastating environmental damage being inflicted near the city of Yan’an in Shaanxi province, whose current area will be doubled by flattening mountains over a nearly 50-square mile area.

Here’s a 2013 Chinese TV news video of a car in Yan’an being buried in a mudslide.

Duke University professor of hydrology and biogeosciences Brian McGlynn told BBC News that he shared the Chinese scientists’ worries. “We don’t have any experience with manipulations on this scale: It’s a large experiment,” he said.

The mountain-flattening projects are part of the Chinese government’s vision of moving 400 million people from rural areas into the cities, according to a 2013 article from the Telegraph, a British newspaper.