Chinese villages, poisoned by toxins, battle for justice

Tainted wells have spurred legal drive for cleanup, compensation.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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

Villagers' concerns began in 2001, when hundreds of pigs and chickens mysteriously died. After Chinese New Year 2002, scores of people were stricken with illnesses ranging from debilitating headaches and severe stomach problems to heart palpitations. After wearing freshly washed clothes, many developed strange rashes. Those who worked at the factory started to talk about what went on inside and fingered the likely culprit: toxic waste.

"At first we didn't believe it," recalls Cao Qingren, a local law clerk who is fighting for the villages. "Then we realized the water must be bad."

Mr. Cao is a devout Buddhist and a longtime Communist Party member. He says these value systems give him hope despite years of failed pleas for help. "I believe in the government and the party," he says. "Somehow, they"re going to solve this for us."

Over the ensuing months, children, the most vulnerable, began to experience problems. Many stopped growing. Several teens have short legs and chronic pain; younger children have visible bone malformations.

Illness has affected entire families. In one case, Zhao Fujun moves with great pain around her family restaurant. Yet her deepest anguish is reserved for her daughter, 15-year-old Tang Rui. Once a top student, Tang is starting to lose her memory. She is short for her age, and can't keep up with her friends at school. X-rays show her bones are thickening and changing. "When other students run, I have to walk," she says.

The family learned last year Tang has a brain tumor. It's not malignant, but the needed surgery costs $5,000 – eight times the average annual salary in Leifeng. Though the genesis of Tang Rui's brain tumor is unknown, the doctors have told the family it's undoubtedly related to contamination.

The more prominent illnesses here are consistent with fluoride overexposure. Small doses of flouride are routinely added to drinking water worldwide to strengthen teeth. But ingesting too much is linked to a condition called skeletal fluorosis, marked by dense, brittle bones vulnerable to breaks and other problems. High exposure to hydrofluoric acid has been linked to heart trouble and mental retardation.

The Jing Quan wine company has refused comment.

Water tests from 2002 show five sites that contained fluoride concentrations of as high as 1,562 milligrams per liter, according to a 2005 report from the Chinese Society of Environmental Sciences. The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends less than 4 mg. per liter, and no more than 2 mg. for young children. In China, the standard is stricter, allowing no more than 1 mg. of fluoride per liter. Inside the factory, tests found very high fluoride levels: One sample showed 12,000 times the allowed amount.

After initial complaints and meetings with local governments, the alcohol company agreed to provide free tap water to those living within 60 meters of the factory and pay three dozen residents up to $5,000. That only addressed part of the problem, since people who live as far away as 500-600 meters have had health problems.

And there are strings attached. In summer, the company often shuts off clean tap water to the village, and has told villagers who took compensatory cash they couldn't sue. The factory does not admit fault, and says it has stopped using acid and dumping it here, but villagers are still suspicious and fear it may also be being dumped on another unsuspecting village.

"There's nothing else that could have caused this," argues Zhang Ruwen, speaking of the death of his sister-in-law.

The family of Dong Shufeng, the mother of the orphaned boy, is convinced that her work with hydrofluoric acid, coupled with drinking the water, killed her. Medical records show acute liver poisoning.

Dong's is the only death linked to the factory, but the hundreds of others who are ill have had no real treatment. At least one-third of the village's 1,000 families still drink questionable water.

Dong's brother-in-law, Zhang, laughs one minute and cries the next as he tells his family's story. He worries about his nephew and his niece, who quit school at age 14 after her mom died. He recalls how, shortly before Dong's death, she wrote a pleading letter to any journalist who would listen, begging for justice. "She knew that she was going to die from this poison," says Zhang, who urged Cao, the law clerk, to immerse himself in the case.

In Cao's home, which abuts the factory, are files of correspondence dating to 2002. They show numerous complaints to the nearby Muling and Mudanjiang city governments and to Heilongjiang Province. Several municipal documents declare the water close to the factory unsafe, but they do not offer plans to supply all villagers with clean water.

Official response is by form letter

China's State Council responded to several separate petitions with form-letter receipts. Government inaction has led to whispers in the village of possible cronyism protecting the factory.

The villagers' fight has meant evading roadblocks set up by factory thugs to prevent them from traveling to Beijing to file petitions with the State Council. They've had their hopes raised by local journalists who have traveled here, only to have them dashed later when they publish nothing.

Cao also has helped pool money in the villages to pay for the $250 per-person medical screenings for court evidence. He's pieced evidence together methodically to create a case the courts can't ignore.

'I am not afraid'

"In the beginning, we common people had no solution," says Cao, his deep-set eyes dark with intensity. "The factory continued doing these things." Throughout the case, residents have talked of rioting. But Cao convinced villagers to be patient. Demonstrations are illegal, he has reminded them, and would hurt their chances in court. "What we are talking about is fact," he says. "I'm not afraid."

But Cao's wife is afraid. When visitors arrive, she stands outside to calm their menacing guard dog. Since Cao took these cases, their home has had four break-in attempts and they've faced veiled and overt threats.

Cao says his telephone was bugged. Near their bed, he keeps four long, well-sharpened knives for self-defense.

Yet still, like so many in this emerging field, Cao believes in the system.

"We still have laws here," says Cao. "This is what I need to do. If the people suffer, then I suffer."

Legal aid center in Beijing

On the campus of a Beijing law school, Professor Wang Canfa greets visitors amid stacks of papers and books, and explains how the China Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims works. A lone white telephone in the small apartment connects hundreds of callers from across China to an army of lawyers who might help them.

"Our mission is to promote public environmental consciousness, legal consciousness, and protect environmental rights by helping pollution victims in court," says Mr. Wang, who has taught environmental law in Xiamen and Beijing for 22 years.

Of 80 cases it has filed, the law center has won a third, lost about 20 percent, and the rest remain in court. Cases have included compensation for farmers after a chemical spill along the Jiangsu Province coast and another where courts halted construction of an animal-experiment lab near Beijing.

Since Wang CANGFA started the law center in 1998, it has trained 269 lawyers and 163 judges on the particulars of Chinese environmental law. Lawyers who take the course then volunteer by handling at least one case a year.

Since the center started, it has taken 9,000 calls from across China. It relies in part on donations from around the world to pay for costs that can run as high as $35,000, a huge sum here. The center advertises its hot-line service around China, and has had calls from every region – except Tibet and Taiwan, Mr. Wang notes with a laugh.

China's "regular people," says Wang, deserve protection. "My center can pressure enterprises and force them to obey the law. Victims provide the best pressure to companies."

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