Fears Over Battery Plant Plans

Residents of southern China say a planned battery factory could poison local water supplies.
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Two children take part in protests against a planned battery plant in Shenzhen in an undated photo.
Two children take part in protests against a planned battery plant in Shenzhen in an undated photo.
Photo appears courtesy of Shenzhen residents

Residents of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen are mounting a vocal campaign against plans to build a battery plant in their neighborhood, following a slew of cases of lead poisoning in children across the country in recent months.

The plant is scheduled to be built, beginning next year, by China's BYD Group, which numbers among its shareholders U.S. market guru Warren Buffett. If it goes ahead, it will export state-of-the-art rechargeable batteries around the world.

But residents of Shenzhen, a city of 10 million people, say they are concerned that it sits too close to reservoirs which supply the city with drinking water.

They say BYD has already sparked pollution concerns at some of its other Shenzhen facilities.

A private homeowner in Shenzhen's Longgang district surnamed Li said people in his neighborhood have been complaining for two years about foul smells issuing from an industrial plant also run by BYD, but without result.

"We have complained many times, and every time the environmental protection department knows it's coming from BYD as soon as they get our call," Li said.

"They are lagging behind on a number of [environmental] standards," he said. "They have been tested a number of times, and told they have passed, but that they have to make improvements."

"I don't understand this ... because a lot of elderly people and children from our residential complex have been feeling unwell, and have gone to the hospital to get treatment."

A local spokeswoman for the environmental group Greenpeace surnamed Jiang said the Longgang BYD plant was known to be emitting pollution into the atmosphere.

Local media have reported a sharp rise in patients in recent months at the nearby medical clinic.

An employee who answered the phone at the plant said he hadn't heard of any complaints from local residents, and that no one had reported any sickness as a result of its emissions recently.

Environmental crisis

Chinese officials have warned that the country is facing a "grave" environmental crisis, with more than half its cities affected by acid rain and one-sixth of its major rivers too polluted even to water crops with.

Three decades of breakneck economic growth have taken their toll on the country's natural resources, sparking a huge increase in public unrest linked to environmental degradation and health problems caused by pollution.

BYD announced the plans to build what it calls "the worlds' largest battery plant" in May, following a surprise change to zoning regulations on the plot of land it owned.

According to an April report issued by China's cabinet, the State Council, BYD planned to invest more than 8.2 billion yuan (U.S. $1.3 billion) in its "new energy" projects, including 7.8 billion yuan (U.S. $1.2 billion) on the lithium ion battery plant in Shenzhen, and 372 million yuan (U.S. $58.1 million) on a solar cell facility.

A Shenzhen resident and protester surnamed Zhou said the plot of land earmarked for the plant lay between the Bingkeng, Tongluojing and Sanzhoutian reservoirs, amid a network of channels supplying water to Shenzhen.

"Two of those reservoirs supply drinking water to us here in Shenzhen," Zhou said. "I heard that there would be a lot of heavy metals involved in a battery plant ... which [raises questions about] environmental protection."

"This is a huge hidden danger: a time bomb," he said. "That is why those of us who live nearby are very worried."

Lead poisoning

Battery makers and lead and zinc smelting plants have been blamed for a wave of lead poisoning cases affecting thousands of children across China in recent years, sometimes sparking violent protests.

And Chinese children who suffer lead poisoning as a result of industrial pollution are frequently sent back to live in contaminated environments and refused treatment, according to a recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The plans for the plant are causing great concern and widespread speculation, local people said in recent interviews.

A residential landlord surnamed Yin said there were currently a large number of residential blocks under construction in the area around the proposed BYD plant, which would provide homes for up to 100,000 people when they were finished.

"A lot of people are talking about this now, and the key factor is the battery plant," Yin said. "Recently a customer took a liking to an apartment, but they are now waiting to see whether the battery plant goes ahead before they buy it," he said.

Ordinary Chinese people are becoming increasingly active in support of environmental issues in recent years.

Shenzhen-based rights activist Xiao Chun said an growing number of ordinary Chinese were now prepared to stand up for the environment.

"The residents of Shenzhen are standing up one by one to protect their own environment," Xiao said. "This sort of courage on their part will contribute to a better society."

"The government should back them up, not suppress them," he said.

Moves to cut down some of Nanjing's iconic "wutong" trees sparked protests in the eastern city ahead of the G20 international monetary conference in March.

And thousands gathered in the northeastern port city of Dalian in August to call on the government to close down a petrochemical plant that made paraxylene (PX), a toxic and carcinogenic substance.

The protests, which resulted in a promise to close the plant from the city's leaders, echoed a similar movement in the southeastern port city of Xiamen in 2007, when the municipal government backed down on a planned PX plant following massive popular anger and demonstrations.

Reported by Bi Zimo and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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