Wednesday, May 23, 2012

China's Killing Fields

     Greenpeace's Ma Tianjie holds up a water sample from the area contaminated by the chromium dump. Picture: Greenpeace Source: Supplied

WU Shuliang says it was hard work digging the grave for his 15-year-old son. The soil in this remote part of southwest Yunnan province is parched and possibly contaminated too.

The makeshift memorial to honour the short life of Wu Wenyong was made from a mixture of the bone-dry earth and rocks from a nearby quarry. The base of the grave is decorated with simple offerings; fruit, biscuits and a paper cup containing his son's favourite sweets.

"I always talk to him when I come here and ask him, 'Why didn't you have a good life, son ? Why did you leave us so young and so soon?' "

Wu, a 42-year-old farmer, comes here twice a week. Beside him today is his other son, Wu Wen, who is 11 and so old enough to understand that he'll never play with his big brother again.

"He knows," Wu says. "He cried for the first two days. Then slowly he began realise that his brother was never coming back."

The dead boy was buried the month before after battling two types of cancer.

His mother, Qi Xueying, is still struggling to come to terms with her loss. Her grief as painful to watch as it is for her to endure. Sobbing uncontrollably she recalled her son's final, painful hours. "The night before he died he was in too much pain and he couldn't bear it any more. His room was on the 20th floor. He wanted me to open the window so he could jump out."

Last September, Wu's face ballooned and tumour-like growths developed on his neck. He was diagnosed with thymoma, cancer of the thymus gland in the chest, and with leukaemia.

Before he became ill the young Wu often paddled in the Nanpan River, close to the fields where he would help his parents tend rice.

Wu says that sometimes the river water could be red, yellow and even white. But in a display of fatalistic acceptance his wife says they have no choice but to use this water to irrigate their fields.

"Of course it's risky," she says . 'But what else can we do ? It is dangerous, but you can't find water elsewhere."

For the villagers of Xinglong the river provides their only water source. A large overground pipe was built over Wu's field to pump water directly to the village well.

Overlooking the field is a vast warehouse that for years has been used to store a chemical called chromium. The World Health Organisation lists chromium as a carcinogen.

Wu claims that when it rained run-off seeped into the water and into his land. He and the other villagers didn't know it was dangerous until it was too late. "My son followed us as we worked, so he always played there. I didn't know the land was dangerous at first. But then the local TV reported that it was toxic," Wu says.

Studies show prolonged exposure to chromium can cause leukaemia and cancer of the stomach. Wu's son had both. About a year ago livestock began mysteriously dying, too.

"We had lots of cows and sheep," Qi says. "But many of them died and we didn't know why."

The English name for Xinglong is prosperous. But there is nothing fortunate about this place. I have been reporting from China for 24 years, and this is one of the saddest places I have ever been to.

It adjoins a similar sized village called Xiaoxin. Both are in the middle of a large industrial park, where the acrid air assails the senses. You can actually taste the gritty particles. 

Locals blame this cluster of factories for an outbreak of deadly tumours. In recent years big polluting factories have been relocated from urban areas to the countryside, where environmental laws are less rigorously enforced. More importantly, local governments rely on such factories for tax revenues.

As I wander around the two villages, I soon realise that the Wu family share a tragic bond with many others here.

Qinglan Sun says her 26-year-old son died from leukaemia two years ago. "He was a fine young man. He had a strong body and was about to get married," she says.

It's hard to establish just how many people have died here from cancer in the past 10 years. Some villagers put the figure at 15, others at 25. The local hospital in the nearby town of Quijing did not respond to calls.

"Before the factory moved here 10 years ago, we were all healthy," says Qinglan.

Another villager Wang Jinxiang is mourning the loss of her middle-aged daughter who died a week earlier. "Cancer, cancer, cancer," she says, beating her chest. "Liver cancer. She ate the crops and drank the river water."

Everyone I spoke to in Xinglong knew someone who had died from cancer. And the villagers are in no doubt about what's caused it.

"It is definitely because of the waste near the Nanpan River. Before the factory moved here nobody was sick," says Wu Shuqiong, whose husband died from liver cancer two years ago.

The story of what happened here is not unique. Environmental groups warn that cancer is now the country's biggest killer. But there have been no epidemiological studies to back up such claims.

"Definitely it's one of the biggest killers in the country and I think there is a concern that with the rampant pollution this issue could get even worse," says Ma Tianjie of Greenpeace, who has been to Yunnan to investigate the chromium dump and its effects.

"We found many cancer victims in Xinglong and Xiaoxin," Ma says. "It was very serious. 

When we tested the water near the polluting site we found that it's about two hundred times the national standard, so it's a very serious problem."

The Yunnan Luliang Peace Technology company was established in 2003, according to its website. It makes chromium, a metal used in stainless steel, paints, plastic and dyes and sodium dichromate, used for the tanning of leather. The warehouse where the chromium is stored is covered with metal sheets, but villagers say that only happened after recent protests outside the plant. Ma says that laws regulating the disposal of chromium are poor.

"The technology for treating this kind of waste is very primitive and that's why they are producing so much waste."

The problem for villagers is establishing a link between the chromium and the high incidence of cancer. "Even though you cannot prove that link, our investigation shows that people are unquestionably being exposed to pollution," Ma says.

Last year state media reported that 140,000 tonnes of chromium-6 had been buried outside the two villages. Police subsequently arrested five people and ordered the Yunnan Luliang Peace Technology company to halt its production of chromium. But during my visit it was clear parts of the factory were still working.

The Wu family is broke. To pay for their son's medical bills they borrowed more than 50,000 yuan ($15,000) from relatives and other villagers, a fortune for illiterate, subsistence farmers. They may have to sell the house.

"We are really helpless financially. We sold everything in the house. We used to be quite well off," Qi says.

After hearing of their son's plight the local government gave them $150. It gave the same amount to other cancer death families.

Wu and his wife feel helpless: "Even if we want to sue the factory, we have no money, no one will sue for us for free. Even if we sue them, we can't win the court case."

The Luliang Environmental Protection Department refused to return calls. Nationally, the government continues to insist it is cleaning up pollution faster than other nations at a similar stage of development. But it's clear part of that strategy is to relocate many toxic industries to rural areas.

I wanted to meet representatives of the chromium factory. But they came to me. As I was driving out of Xinglong, a Pajero overtook and skidded in front of my vehicle. The two men who got out would not identify themselves. Instead they demanded I follow them to the factory. It was clear it was going to be hard for me to leave without doing what they wanted.
In this part of China, they are the police.

An hour after being escorted into the plant's office, I was allowed to go, on one condition, that I didn't come back. Such harassment of journalists is now routine in China and a reminder of just how politically sensitive the issue of pollution has become.

More than a thousand kilometres north, I am approaching the outskirts of the village of Xiadian, another place you wouldn't want to linger. The air is acrid and gritty. On the outskirts of the village are the three factories -- one a giant steel mill -- locals say are the source of the pollution they claim is killing them. The nearby Baoqiu River has been transformed into a fetid flow. There is so much garbage in the water that in one spot that flow has been reduced to a trickle.

Untreated industrial waste mixed with discarded rubbish has been pumped directly into the water for years, locals tell me. Farmers, careless of the consequences, use this same water to irrigate their fields

My guide is investigative journalist Deng Fei. He has a sinister name for places like this: cancer village. He claims to have unearthed more than 500 of them and says they all have one thing in common. They are close to industries that dump their waste into rivers. Yet China's media is no longer interested.

"A lot of people want the media to cover it, to show their difficulty. But the media doesn't cover it because the topic is so common," Deng says.

One local resident, Feng Jun, filed a lawsuit against the main steel factory in 2008, but did not win. He'd been seeking compensation to cover $80,000 in medical bills he had to pay when both his daughters were diagnosed with leukaemia. A 16-year-old daughter has since died.

Deng says communities such as his are paying the price for China's accelerating economic growth.

"It is because the government needs to promote the economy and they are willing to bring this type of industrial enterprise to elevate their political achievements," he says.

In 2008 the Ministry of Environmental Protection admitted that half the country's 800 million rural population did not have access to safe drinking water. There is little evidence to suggest the situation has improved.

The chromium factory in Xinglong still won't comment. So we don't know how or if it will ever dispose of the chromium pile. But the anger of villagers is clearly mounting. And they are not afraid to vent their frustration to a foreign reporter. One man told me, "Up until now the factory has been polluting our environment. The plant is under the protection of the Chinese government. Now it is like the Chinese government has made an atomic bomb to harm the Chinese people."

Written by Adrain Brown@The Australian

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