China Lead Cases Defy Rules

Lead poisoning cases in China have raised concerns about the government's ability to protect the public, advocates say.
By Michael Lelyveld
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BOSTON--Recent lead poisoning cases highlight serious problems of governance in China as authorities struggle to protect citizens and enforce environmental rules, experts say.

Since Aug. 6, at least 2,205 children have tested positive for high levels of lead in villages near two smelters in northwestern China's Shaanxi and south-central Hunan provinces, according to state media reports.

Another 200 children have been affected in Kunming, the capital of southwest Yunnan province, the English-language China Daily reported on Aug. 31. Parents blame the lead poisoning on a nearby industrial park, although officials have so far denied a direct link, the paper said.

The incidents have raised the question of how such poisonings could happen, given the known dangers of lead and the government's efforts to enforce rules since the high-profile cases of contamination two years ago.

In Radio Free Asia interviews, experts pointed to gaps in the central government's ability to enforce regulations rather than a lack of safety rules.

Poor governance

"I believe it's more of a breakdown of governance, where local governments are acting in their own short-term interests first before they consider the new national direction of putting environmental protection first," said Xiu Min Li, co-director of the China program at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization.

Beijing also faces governance problems due to protests when health risks and violations like those occurring recently at smelters come to light.

In the case of Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant in Hunan's Wenping township, the factory opened in May 2008 within 500 meters of a primary school, a middle school, and a kindergarten, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Rules require that residents be located outside a 1-kilometer zone.

The facility never received environmental approval, said Huang Wenbin, deputy chief of the environmental protection bureau in Wugang City. As of Aug. 22, tests have found elevated lead levels in 1,354 children there, Xinhua said.

"I think in this case, it's a breakdown because the balance was not maintained properly, and so you have public uprisings against a situation where the local government was not following environmental law, creating these incidents," said Li.

Ma Tianjie, a toxins expert in the Beijing office of the environmental group Greenpeace, agrees that the danger to the public and the popular reactions point to problems of governance.

"That's why we're advocating the disclosure of more environmental information to the local community, so that the communities around these factories can be more vigilant," Ma told RFA.

Evaluations required

Ma noted that a new regulation approved by the State Council on Aug. 12 requires environmental evaluations of all new development projects in the planning stages. The rule, which will take effect in October, provides for more public participation, he said.

"The communities around these factories should not be informed after they are already poisoned," said Ma. "They should be informed way ahead of time before those kinds of factories are going to be located in their communities, so that they can be more vigilant and the factories themselves can be held more accountable for what they're releasing into the environment."

While provincial environmental bureaus are often criticized for showing less diligence than the central government's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Ma said that underfunded bureaus may find it hard to inspect all the plants that may open in remote areas.

Xiu Min Li said that her group has been seeking a greater role for local activists and NGOs as watchdogs to encourage vigilance regarding hazardous activities before harmful consequences occur.

"Within the Chinese context, the model that we're promoting is building an independent, effective civil society on the local level that actually works with local governments on some of those governance issues," said Li.

But she added that China is still "a long way" from providing NGOs with legal protections as watchdogs that such groups enjoy elsewhere.


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