Local residents and workers at a coal chemical plant in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou said at least four people have died in recent weeks, citing "foul smells" and severe pollution as the likely cause.
Residents of Guizhou's Tongzi county say foul-smelling gases wafting across Liaoyuan township from the state-owned Tongzi Coal Chemical Plant are likely to blame for the deaths of three residents.
Meanwhile, workers at the plant, which makes industrial chemicals like urea and methanol, said deaths have occurred there, too, but that bodies were "taken away" and the incidents hushed up by management.
"There is severe pollution from the coal-to-chemical plant, which gave a number of our villagers lung diseases, including several types of cancer," a Liaoyuan resident who asked to remain anonymous told RFA on Wednesday.
"Recently, three people have died in our community within the space of 20 days. Their ages ranged from 50 to 60 years old," the resident said.
"This was more than a month ago," he said. "They died pretty quickly after getting sick. They were taken to hospital but couldn't be saved."
The resident added: "We suspect [it has to do with] the very heavy pollution which has caused lung diseases and every type of cancer."
He said deaths had also occurred among workers inside the plant.
"A few days ago, one person died inside the plant itself," he said. "There was a body. [The person was] about 40 years old."
"But when something happens in the factory, they have an information blackout, and no one is allowed to tell anyone outside," he said.
Repeated calls to the Tongzi Coal Chemical Plant rang unanswered during office hours last week.
Bodies 'dragged away'
However, a worker at the plant who asked to remain anonymous said it employs some 2,000 people, and confirmed that deaths had occurred there.
"There was one death, but that wasn't the only one. The [bodies] have been quietly dragged away by management."
"There have been quite a few, even those we know about," the worker said. "They don't want us to find out about it."
The worker added: "[The most recent death] was in August. I heard that they don't want people to know about it, and if anyone dies, they just dispose of the body and keep it a secret."
The worker said previous attempts to raise the issue of exposure to toxic pollution with management had gotten nowhere.
"We don't dare [to complain]," the worker said. "They will detain you and lock you up if you do. We did speak out about it once, but they told us not to talk about it."
"There are so many smells; I can't stand it," the worker added. "Whenever we smell that smell, we run away."
Asked if any of the workers got sick, the worker replied: "Yes, a lot do."
Another Liaoyuan resident who declined to be named said the state-owned chemical plant was set up in 2007 after appropriating local farmland.
"It makes all sorts of chemicals, including chemical fertilizers," the resident said. "A lot of local people can smell [the gases]. We were the first to start smelling these gases."
'Don't tell anyone'
A third villager said there is a constant layer of dust in her home, which she linked to the plant's emissions.
"Two or three people have died. This was recently; not long ago," she said, adding: "Don't tell anyone my phone number. If they find out, I'll get beaten up."
Calls to the Tongzi county government offices and the environmental protection bureau also rang unanswered during office hours last week.
An employee who answered the phone at the Liaoyuan township government offices declined to comment on the allegations. "I only just started working here, and I don't really know about this," the employee said.
Asked if the chemical plant emitted a foul smell, the employee replied: "I can't smell anything."
Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest, according to a 2013 report from the Friends of Nature group.
Many have been prompted into action by China's environmental crisis, sparking a rise in "mass incidents" linked to pollution, while environmental groups have raised growing concerns over the falsification of pollution testing and environmental impact assessments.
Campaigners say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that close ties between industry and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.