Authorities in eastern China's Jiangsu province have issued an eviction order to residents of up to 10 villages living near a steel mill that has long been criticized for pumping out toxic fumes, residents and local media said on Friday.
"One village is being required to evacuate immediately," said a resident of a village on the outskirts of Jiangsu's Liyang city who gave only his surname Jiang.
"This has been decreed by the government, so, as citizens, we have no power in the matter," said Jiang, whose home lies less than 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Shente Iron & Steel Works near Liyang city.
Jiang said local people had been complaining of ill health which they blamed on toxic fumes from the steelworks for more than 10 years.
"It has caused air pollution, and it has affected my health," Jiang said. "It's all the government's fault, because they approved it on the quiet."
"There are two steel mills, and they both put out pollution."
Demolition and evictions have already begun following a renewed announcement by the Liyang authorities on Thursday, state-controlled Chinese media reported on Friday.
In Niucheduo village, the majority of houses have already been razed, although some people are holding out in a few remaining intact buildings, the news portal Sina.com reported on Friday, in an article based on state-run broadcaster CCTV's "Economics Half Hour" program.
One woman told the program said everyone had moved out because Shente Steelworks is just across the street from their houses.
Privately owned Shente Steelworks has been at the center of pollution complaints from local residents since it began production in 2003, Chinese media reports have said.
The company has been accused of "evading" environmental checks, while local residents have deluged Liyang municipal authorities with open letters and petitions calling for a full environmental impact assessment to be carried out.
Three cancer deaths have been recording in surrounding villages in recent years, according to the CCTV report, while the authorities shut down production at Shente temporarily in 2011 for "rectification."
But in May 2012, the Liyang government announced that Shente's production processes fell within national guidelines, and that a number of villages in the vicinity of the plant had been designated as "falling within the environmental evacuation zone."
Repeated calls to the Liyang municipal government offices went unanswered during office hours on Friday.
An official who answered the phone at the Licheng township government, which administers the villages near the plant, said the government had no jurisdiction over the plant itself.
"The plant is the responsibility of Zhongguan village," the official said. "We are in charge of civil projects."
But he added: "We monitor emissions from enterprises regularly."
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.
China has a comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation, but close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level, activists and experts say.
Around 600 million people are affected by air pollution and smog days that plague northern China, according to a July report from China's State Development and Reform Commission.
And a recent report by the American National Academy of Sciences found that residents of northern China could be losing five years of life expectancy compared with those in the south, which until recently has enjoyed better air quality.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.