08/04/2009, 00.00
CHINA
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Poisoned by heavy metals Hunan villagers step up protests

Hundreds of people have been poisoned by heavy metals discharged in water and farmland. The latter has become unsuitable for farming for at least 60 years. The authorities preach calm, but residents who have lost everything want treatment and financial support right away.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Protests in villages around the city of Liuyang (Hunan) are spreading. Residents are up in arms against the high levels of heavy metal poisoning, including cadmium, found in the area near a chemical plant owned by Changsha Xianghe which discharged without any controls dangerous compounds into water that irrigate local fields. The authorities have appealed to residents to maintain order, but for many the case has become a litmus test for those in power.

The authorities announced on Saturday that they had suspended Chen Wenbo, head of Liuyang's environmental protection bureau, and his deputy. State news agency Xinhua also reported the detention of plant owner Luo Xiangping. The authorities also sent tens of officials to the three most affected villages to tell residents not to make any public protests, promising people they would get compensation as soon as possible and that their requests for free check-ups and treatment were being considered.

Despite threats of a crackdown residents have taken to the streets again to protest the metal poisoning that has killed at least five people and left hundreds sick, poisoning that is incurable and that has contaminated fields that can no longer be farmed, leaving local farmers without a means to earn a living. In fact the nearly 4,000 residents of Shuangqiao have been told they cannot farm their land for 60 years.

Residents have said they want concrete and immediate steps, including medical treatment and new land to farm. So far the government has given free checks only to the 2,888 people who lived within a 1.2-kilometre radius of the plant. Of these, 509 had cadmium and indium poisoning and 33 were hospitalised right away.

The pollution has been found beyond the immediate perimeter. The metals are carcinogenic and cadmium can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, nervous system and brain.

The villagers began complaining three years ago about pollution from the factory, which started producing zinc sulphate in 2004.

The factory, which for years discharged waste water containing cadmium and indium and heaped untreated solid waste in the open air, was not closed until last month when the scandal broke.

The local government has been paying daily subsidies of 8 to 12 yuan (US$ 1.1 to 1.7) to the 12,000 affected, but has said the payments would stop today.

Even then some residents said that no actual money has been transferred into their accounts. Hence, “What else can we do but protest?”, said one.

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