Ordinary cases of pollution: aluminium in rivers and lead in blood
In Guangdong, a plant discharges a 4,500 cubic metres toxic sludge in rivers and farmland. In Zhejiang, residents complain of lead poisoning. In both cases, the guilty plants are illegal. Pollution is one of the main causes of social unrest as authorities show little inclination to act. Often, they are accused of complicity.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – An illegal aluminium smelter released 4,500 cubic metres toxic sludge into rivers and waterways, killing fish, near the cities of Qingyuan and Zhaoqing in Guangdong. Up to 66.6 hectares of farmland may have been affected by the spill as well. Tens of thousands of farmers live in the area.

A local newspaper, the Nanfang Daily, reported the disaster, quoting from frightened residents. Chen Guixiang , a Communist Party chief at Baimang village, one of the worst hit villages, recalled the horrific scene when a torrent of foul-smelling water and toxic sludge rushed down a hill where the factory was located and flooded his village and several others.

However, the authorities in both Qingyuan and Zhaoqing said the problem was not extensive. Ouyang Jie, the chief of the environmental watchdog in Guangning County, said that only three to four mu (less than half a hectare) of farmland in his county had been contaminated.

The factory, which did not even have a proper name, had been allowed to operate since September without approval or mandatory environmental assessment.

Local villagers had complained about toxic air and land pollution caused by the discharges of wastewater containing mainly aluminium.

However, since the plant was built along municipal boundaries, the authorities in Qingyuan and Zhaoqing ignored their grievances, saying the smelter was not under their respective jurisdictions.

Despite China’s government strict aluminium smelter controls, many smelters have popped up along municipal borders and avoided supervision, with local authorities squabbling over responsibility.

In Taizhou District (Zhejiang), some 170 residents, including 53 children aged 14 months to 10 years, have suffered lead poisoning caused by the Taizhou Suqi Storage Battery Company.

Opened in 2005, the plant was built near a village. Residents complained several times about its discharges. National regulations ban battery factories within 500 metres of residents.

The factory was ordered to close on 16 March. Its manager, Ying Jianguo, was detained last Friday. Three government officials, including the deputy chief of the district's environmental protection office, were suspended for failing to supervise the region properly.

Repeated exposure to small amounts of lead causes slow build up, which eventually ends in poisoning. Lead poisoning can damage various parts of the body, including the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys, and cause high blood pressure and anaemia.

Pollution accidents are frequent in China, with children the most affected. Lead was found in the blood of more than 200 children living near a battery factory in Anhui province (see “Pollution in China: Hundreds of children poisoned by lead,” in AsiaNews, 2 January 2011).

Other cases were reported last year: more than 600 children in Fengxiang County (Shaanxi) in August (see “Lead poisons the blood of 84 children in Yunnan,” in AsiaNews 27 July 2010), and more than 1,000 Jiyuan, Henan in October.

In Wenping and Zhenthou, both in Hunan province, thousands of people were poisoned by heavy metals (see “Chinese police arrest parents protesting blood lead poisoning in their children,” in AsiaNews, 3 September 2009, and “Beijing investigates culprits behind lead poisoning. But orders new analysis,” in AsiaNews, 28 August 2009).

Angry over the pollution, people have protested against the inertia of local authorities, often suspected of complicity with plant managers and owners.

However, the authorities tend to react by sending the police to break up protests. Often, local officials and company bosses are not prosecuted. Plants simply are shut down and their operations moved elsewhere, with residents left without compensation or free medical care.