Families seek truth over deaths near notorious polluted outflow

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 June, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 June, 2000, 12:00am

In the space of 20 minutes one afternoon on May 18, 10 residents of Fuyang, Anhui, passed out along the city's main sewage outlet. Six of those who happened to get too close to this stretch of water, known as the 'Seven-Li Trench', would never recover.

The other four survived, but suffer ailments including headaches, nausea and boils covering their legs. The local hospital has neglected to provide medication for them, apparently because no one is willing to pay the bill, the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Weekly reported.

Fuyang was one of 10 designated 'Clean Industry Cities' on the mainland last year. City records boast that the treatment of industrial waste water has achieved 100 per cent effectiveness. But local factory workers admit they are always warned before inspectors arrive, and ensure that their factories pass the tests by shutting off waste outlets and flushing systems with clean running water.

Locals are well aware that pollution along 'Seven-Li Trench' is serious. They say the water is vile, especially near the sluice gate emptying waste from the city's main industrial compound, including a leather tannery. When the gate is open, water nearby becomes inky black with frothy, white foam on top and a haze rising from it. A sulfurous stench typically reaches 100 or more metres downwind, and no grass grows within 10 metres of the 15-metre wide gully.

But some locals still live as near as 80 metres, and try their best to plant crops as close as 15 metres. Although the May deaths were the worst poisoning incident in Fuyang in recent history, four other mysterious deaths have occurred along 'Seven-Li Trench' in recent years. The official explanation has always been accidental drowning, but only two victims fell into the water. The other corpses were found with black and blue faces higher up the bank, locals say.

The Government of this city of 300,000 has already spent five million yuan (HK$4.7 million) on a system of sluice gates designed to control waste water and prevent the possibility of backwash during a flood. But they are reluctant to spend what they say would be an additional 270 million yuan to clean up the waste water, which flows into the Huai River.

An effective clean-up could mean substantial losses and closure of a good portion of the city's industries. Officials tell those who complain about pollution: 'Let's consider the greater interest.' Although the police investigated the recent case, they have failed to release any information regarding the source of the poison or the cause of the deaths. Two days after the deaths, though, tests conducted by officials from the Epidemic Prevention Station showed that the water contained 700 milligrams per cubic metre of poisonous hydrogen sulfide. The nationally prescribed acceptable level for public waterways is 0.08 milligrams per cubic metre.

But the local Government has declared the incident an accident, and refuses to publicise any investigation results. It has designated the six who died as martyrs who died honourably during 'brave, voluntary action'.

It has given each family of the deceased compensation of between 45,000 yuan and 65,000 yuan and is applying to senior officials for the right to bestow the title of 'Revolutionary Martyr' on four of the deceased.

The relatives, however, are cynical about this, and suspect it is just bluster designed to blunt their keenness for justice.

Zhao Gaofeng, one of the four who recovered, is dissatisfied with the Government's actions. 'For the sake of the residents, they should at least let us know what happened,' he said. Families of the victims were told not to demonstrate, not to petition the Government, and not to talk to journalists without authorisation.

When they held memorial services, 30 police cars accompanied the funeral procession, to the bewilderment of the bereaved.

One farmer described how a television news team came to do a story on pollution in the area last year. 'When I spoke into the microphone, I said only terrible things about Seven-Li Ditch.' But when he watched the news broadcast, 'my words were turned into praise'. After this, he said, his neighbours gave him a hard time for lying about the situation.