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Chinese villages, poisoned by toxins, battle for justice

Tainted wells have spurred legal drive for cleanup, compensation.

By Kathleen E. McLaughlinCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2006


Zhang Guanghui, an 11-year-old orphan, rises from the kang, a heated brick bed that he shares with an older cousin. He scurries through his barren four-room concrete home, washing his face and hands, brushing his teeth, and preparing food.

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At the center of all his actions is dirty water that he pumps from a well beneath the home. The untreated water was never purged of the toxins that almost certainly killed his mother, severely stunted his growth, and left at least 500 people in this farming community of 1,000 families in northeast China ill and desperate. Still, he drinks the water – which develops an oily film just seconds after it's pumped.

Inside the house, where Zhang and his cousin live alone, the logo of the Jing Quan rice-wine factory down the road is printed on transparent tape that seals plastic on windows and covers the kang. That factory is where Zhang's mother worked for three months in 2002, etching bottles by dipping them into hydrofluoric acid with only rubber gloves for protection.

The same factory dumped ton upon ton of used acid into an unlined pit, court and government documents reveal. The acid seeped into the village's groundwater, poisoning the wells of hundreds of families.

Subsequent tests showed fluoride levels in the water thousands of times higher than is considered safe. Neither the factory nor government has done cleanup; water tests done a year ago show pollution remains.

Still, Zhang drinks the water, which develops an oily film just seconds after it's pumped from the ground. "We all drank the poisoned water. This situation is really bad," said Wang Julan, a 57-year-old grandmother, herself a victim.

Determination to get a day in court

The story of Leifeng and Puxing, some 100 miles west of Siberia, is a protracted saga of environmental abuse, family tragedy, official neglect – and a determination to fight within the system for change.

The villagers' desperation for a resolution to their plight is not unique. Along with its overheated economic growth, China has developed vast environmental problems. Even as spoiled air, water, and soil have degraded the environment across the country, they have often caused illnesses. Serious protests have often followed: The countryside saw nearly 90,000 uprisings last year, the government says, and 50,000 were related to pollution.

China has promised stricter enforcement and monitoring, as well as tougher standards. Larger cities with high-profile environmental problems have drawn attention and action – in November, the international press and government aid poured into Harbin and Jilin after a chemical-plant explosion threatened the downriver drinking water of millions.

But small towns like Leifeng and Puxing, which are just a few hundred miles away from those cities, have languished. Good intentions from the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) can't solve every problem, and local officials often have little incentive to do the right thing. The job of fighting for victims of environmental disasters is thus being taken up by growing ranks of activists and lawyers.

SEPA did not respond to phone calls or written questions about the pollution in Leifeng and Puxing.

"The problem is that despite all the positive rhetoric emanating from Beijing, very little has found its way down to the local level," says Elizabeth Economy, senior Asia researcher with the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The River Runs Black," on China's environmental crisis.

"The grass-roots ... movement is where the energy is coming from in China," she adds. The plight of Leifeng and Puxing, long ignored by government and media, has become a perfect example of this larger movement. Under the direction of a legal center in Beijing as well as a local law clerk, Leifeng and Puxing villages are fighting for their day in court.

Villagers begin to notice problems