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China: Pollution protests against "death factory" suppressed

Sunday 11 October 2009

Fri, 7 Aug 2009.
Lethal waste from a chemical plant in Liuyang city, Hunan province, has killed at least five people

Last week, on Wednesday 29 July, over a thousand villagers in Zhentou township in Liuyang city, Hunan province laid siege to local government offices and a police station in protest against pollution from the nearby Xianghe chemical factory. Their demonstration earlier in the day had been thwarted by local officials, with police making six arrests. Zhentou township residents are fighting for compensation and medical treatment following closure of the polluting plant in June. For six years, the Xianghe "death factory" was illegally producing the dangerous metal indium, while denying this, and claiming instead it was only manufacturing the food additive zinc sulphate. Indium is used in liquid crystal displays (LCDs) for electronic products such as watches, mobile phones, and high-definition TVs. China is the main producer of indium.

By refining indium, the Xianghe factory also produced cadmium, another dangerous metal, as a by-product. This lethal production process lacked government approval and the necessary safety facilities for dealing with the toxic waste. When the plant was finally closed in June, environmental officials claimed that indium had only been produced for a short period during 2006. But workers at the plant have told the South China Morning Post (6 August) that this is not true, indium production had been constant at the plant since 2004.

"We had absolutely no idea that what we did would cause such devastating damage to the environment and to our health," one worker told the SCMP."Bosses only told us about making big money. They never talked about health hazards."

In addition to endagering its - unprotected and untrained - workers’ lives, the Xianghe factory pumped its toxic waste into the sewage system causing massive problems for the water supply, farmland and the local community. At least five people have died from pollution-related illnesses in the last few months and many more have been fallen ill. In short, the blind pursuit of profit has caused a health crisis for hundreds of local residents. So far, 509 people in Zhentou have been found to be suffering from cadmium poisoning.

The official Xinhua New Agency reported that the Xianghe plant had begun refining cadmium and indium in April 2004 even though it had not installed all the environmental safety equipment needed. According to Xinhua, the factory had pumped all its waste water directly into the soil and sewage system without any treatment for the past six years, until it was ordered to halt production in March this year.

Protesters’ demands

This explains the anger and resolve of the Zhentou demonstrators. They are demanding the authorities who failed to control the factory and enforce environmental laws should pay for medical check-ups and costly treatment. They are demanding compensation for ruined land and crops including timber, rice and vegetables.

"We have suffered cadmium and indium poisoning for the last six years," said Zhong Yu, who lives in Shuangqiao, one of the worst-hit villages. Cadmium poisoning attacks the lungs, digestive system and nervous system. Around 4,000 people in Shuangqiao have been living on food and water trucked in since May, when laboratory tests on local soil samples showed it would not be safe for farming for another 60 years.

The most recent death from suspected cadmium posioning was just one week before the 29 July demonstration. Medical tests showed this man had 8.9 times the acceptable level of cadmium in his body.

Official collusion

Replicating a pattern that is typical across China, especially in rural areas, local officials and also agents of environmental watchdogs seem to have colluded with the Xianghe bosses in covering up its poisonous activities. The South China Morning Post (5 August) reported that the factory was tipped off in advance of visits from environmental agencies.

"Yes, officials from the environment protection bureau did come from time to time," one worker told the newspaper. "But they only stayed in the office building and drank tea with the boss. They never, ever, came to see the production line. The boss always got wind of it before environmental inspectors visited. He would then tell us to stop production."

Confirming this official collusion, the director of Liuyang environmental protection bureau, Chen Wenbo, was sacked this week in the wake of villagers’ protests. Chen is the second environmental protection chief in the region to be toppled by a pollution scandal. His predecessor, Yuan Nianshou, was arrested six years ago for taking bribes. Adding to this picture of criminal intrigue, Xiong Zanhui, the deputy mayor of Zhentou town, was arrested on 4 August for allegedly taking 100,000 yuan (HK$113,000) in bribes from the Xianghe Chemical plant. The owner of the factory and four other senior managers were also detained. But for many people in Liuyang, and many across China following the case on the internet, the conduct of the arrested officials is just the tip of the iceberg.


A new protest march was called for Tuesday 4 August. But this time, local officialdom led by the mayor of Liuyang city, exerted massive pressure on local villagers to call off the protest. An all-day meeting was staged, at which the mayor and other officials promised to heed villagers greivances. But this was backed up by warnings they would "severely punish troublemakers" who insisted on continuing protests, according to eye-witnesses.

Despite this pressure, local residents were clearly dissatisfied especially over the lack of medical check-ups and offers to cover treatment costs. Some were vowing new protests would be staged in the coming period. The case is not an isolated one. Hundreds of examples have come to light in recent years of grassroots protests against polluting industrial projects. Only last week, the government of Guangdong province backtracked on its support for a plan by oil giant Sinopec to build a refinery and petrochemical plant in southern Guangzhou. This plant, to be built jointly with Kuwaiti capital, will now be moved to an as yet unannounced area in the west of the province following massive protests and petitioning online. At the same time, it is increasingly common for local governments to relax environmental controls and stage cover ups on behalf of polluting companies in order to attract invetsment in the harsh climate of the capitalist economic downturn.

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