Pollution problems at a chemical plant in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou have now "improved" after an overhaul of its systems, an environmental official said on Friday, as villagers reported at least two more deaths and health problems they say are linked to local pollution.
Residents of Guizhou's Tongzi county have reported foul smells, dead vegetation, and dust in recent months, which they claim is linked to pollution from the nearby privately owned Tongzi Coal Chemical Plant.
"Things have improved now, following readjustments to the staff and the equipment, and a complete change of management," Tongzi county environmental protection bureau team leader Lin Kailiang told RFA on Friday.
"The equipment has been totally replaced or completely refitted," Lin said, in the first official admission of problems at the plant.
Lin said former company director Wan Guojun had now been replaced.
"They have changed ownership and the name of the company," he said. "This came about because of the accident due to a fault in their equipment."
When contacted by RFA for comment on local residents' allegations, Wan had previously vehemently denied any problems at the plant.
Lin said the formerly state-owned plant has now been relaunched as a private company.
"It's privately owned now, and they have improved their pollution situation," Lin said. "It's fine now."
'Foul smells, dust'
The Tongzi anthracite coal-to-chemical plant uses gasification technology from the U.S.-based company GE to produce syngas, which then is used to produce methanol and ammonia, the Electric Light and Power website reported in 2012.
Residents of nearby Liaoyuan township have repeatedly complained of "foul smells" and "dust" emanating from the plant, suggesting that hydrogen sulphide and ash, two typical pollutants linked to coal gasification, were present.
According to U.S. government health and safety guidelines, people living near industries that emit hydrogen sulfide have an increased risk of eye irritation, cough, headache, nasal blockage, and impaired neurological function.
Arsenic is also a byproduct of the process, and can seep into groundwater if coal ash is dumped.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), arsenic and inorganic arsenic compounds are carcinogenic to humans, causing cancer of the lung, bladder, and skin, with some evidence of links to kidney, liver, and prostate cancers.
Meanwhile, Liaoyuan residents on Friday named two people who had died in the neighborhood in recent weeks.
One of them, 57-year-old Zhou Xianjun, died on Feb. 21, a resident who asked to remain anonymous told RFA.
"One of the villagers died of cancer. His name was Zhou Xianjun. He had cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer," the villager said.
"Last year, a lot of people in this village died," he added.
RFA had previously compiled reports of seven deaths in the village between early August and Nov. 6.
Around a dozen people were also affected by a gas leak on Dec. 13, villagers said.
Linked to pollution
A second Liaoyuan resident confirmed the first villager's account.
"Yes, yes, yes, it was Zhou Xianjun, died of liver cancer, in his fifties," the resident said. "There was also a lady called Wang Anxian who died here in July, of cancer."
He said he had counted five deaths in 2014, although it was unclear if they were same deaths already counted by RFA.
"There are also two or three people who are bedridden and can't get up, he said. "This is linked to the pollution."
He dismissed claims from the environmental bureau that the pollution had been addressed.
"It's still very bad, very polluted," he said. "They are emitting acidic gases. We have already complained to higher levels of government about this, but they pay no attention to us."
"What can we do? This is where we live. We can't go anywhere else."
Children also affected
He said local children had also been affected by the pollution. "The way it affects children is that they are tired and listless," he said.
A third resident said crops and vegetation close to the plant had died off.
"All of the trees planted by local people have died, and everything has turned yellow," he said. "About five or six people died last year."
"The pollution is very serious right now. There is thick smoke, and even when the sun comes out, we can't see it."
"Everyone here drinks bottled water, because we don't dare drink the water [from wells] here," he said.
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.