Toxic Spill in Hunan Province Sickens Thousands

2008-01-25
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Songhua150.jpg
Nov. 24, 2005: A view of the Songhua River in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks.

HONG KONG—Residents of Chenxi county in the southern Chinese province of Hunan say thousands of people are seeking medical attention after a local factory polluted the local water supply, although local officials said only 26 people were taken seriously ill.

“We are not on the main water supply here, so 80 to 90 percent of villagers rely on the same water supply,” a resident of Banqiao village surnamed Chen told RFA’s Cantonese service. “One by one, they are all going to the doctor because they are getting headaches, swelling and weakness in their limbs.”

Chen said that once at the hospital, local people were told by medical staff that they had a suspected case of poisoning through pollution of the water supply. He estimated that around 90 percent of villagers in the area relied on the same water supply.

90 percent share a supply

A county government spokesman initially repeated official media reports that said only 26 people had been taken seriously ill, but he later said 65 people in all had been poisoned.

One by one, they are all going to the doctor because they are getting headaches, swelling and weakness in their limbs.

“There were only 26 people actually admitted to hospital. The figure of more than 1,000 refers to the number of people who underwent medical tests. It doesn’t mean they were sick,” he said. He said production had halted at the plants concerned.

An official at the local environmental protection office said senior officials had all left the office to address the situation in Banqiao and weren’t available to answer questions.

But another resident surnamed Tian said he knew of at least 1,000 people in Banqiao village alone who had sought medical attention for poisoning, several of whom were in critical condition.

Apart from Banqiao village, Chuanqi village and Zhongqi village also share the same water supply.

One resident of Chuanqi village said many people there had also been feeling very ill, but they had been unable to leave to seek medical help because of recent heavy snowfalls.

“It has been snowing very heavily here and no-one has left the village for two weeks. I don’t know anything about our water supply, but we haven’t been able to get medical help,” the man, whose account suggests many more cases of poisoning may still have gone unreported, told RFA's Mandarin service.

Drank from creek

A resident of the county surnamed Wang said nearly everyone he knew had been affected. “Pretty much everyone is poisoned. They drank water that came from the creek, and poisonous effluent had been dumped in the creek.”

It has been snowing very heavily here and no-one has left the village for two weeks.

An employee who answered the phone at the Chengxi county Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital said they had only found out about the poisoning incident from the Internet, and that they didn’t know the cause. They declined to comment further. Staff at the Chengxi County People’s Hospital supplied the mobile phone number of the hospital chief, but calls to the number went unanswered.

Villagers said authorities had built a nearby vanadium mine and associated sulfuric acid plant several years ago despite a concerted campaign by local residents, who were concerned that their water supply would be contaminated.

But the factory was bringing in 20 million yuan yearly in revenue for the local government, so they ignored the villagers and went ahead anyway. Tian said some of the villagers who organized the campaign had been severely injured in attacks by unidentified gangs. He said the authorities should now admit that there was a problem:

“We have complained about this problem to the authorities before. The government sent some hired muscle to beat us up. Some people were badly hurt. The government paid their medical bills. But they still haven’t dealt with the pollution problem.”

Domestic media reports have already carried interviews with villagers complaining that the pollution came from wastewater from the two facilities. The official Xinhua news agency has continued to report the number of those seriously affected as 26.

One reported dead

The official Beijing News online edition carried a report quoting one villager as saying at least one person had died, and interviewed an elderly victim, who had undergone 30 emergency procedures since being admitted. It quoted hospital sources as saying the two hospitals in the county were “packed,” and estimated the number of cases at more than 1,000.

It said officials had admitted the pollution was caused by a leakage from a waste pipe from the sulfuric acid plant. While the water quality had previously tested as first class, it was now found to contain arsenic and some metals, including tin.

“About 10 days ago, villagers in the vicinity of the plant began to fall ill. At first, they were treated as patients of common cold or leukemia, but the poisoning quickly spread. A large number of villagers in Banqiao town and Xiaoping township were taken ill and admitted to hospital, which caught the attention of the local government. They retested the water quality and found in the water highly toxic arsenic and some metals, such as tin,” the paper said.

Posts on the Internet that accused the authorities of covering up the real extent of the accident were soon removed from forums and bulletin boards.

But a post to a government environmental Web site dated May 2006 by a villager from Chuangxi villager said local campaigners against the plants had been attacked by “mafia types” with knifes, who hacked and chopped at them. The post detailed a long petitioning process that eventually yielded no results.

Full impact yet to be assessed

The post is followed by some angry and supportive comments, calling on central government in Beijing to take note, or crying shame upon local leaders.

“Don’t worry if you haven’t heard anything yet,” wrote one satirical commentator. “The government has a lot of things it is very busy with. It wants you to wait nicely, and carry on laying eggs as a contribution to the national economy.”

Can't tens of thousands of you villagers take on such a small factory, even if the government is on the factory's side?

Another called on the people of Banqiao village, Chuanqi county, to unite. “Can’t tens of thousands of you villagers take on such a small factory, even if the government is on the factory’s side,” wrote another.

“We in Jishou city have managed to halt another vanadium plant; that was just a few of us using people power. You must remain resolute and true, and you will overcome this.”

Chemical spills with serious health consequences are common in China.

In 2005, a massive chemical plant spill into northeastern China’s Songhua River resulted in drinking supply cuts affecting millions of residents of Heilongjiang province.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan and in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.