Villagers besiege police over arrests in poison death protest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 2009, 12:00am

More than 1,000 villagers laid siege to a government office and police station in Hunan yesterday in protest against the arrest of six people demonstrating against alleged pollution from a chemical factory.

Villagers in Zhentou township, in Liuyang city, say at least four people have died from pollution-related illnesses and many more have been made ill. They demonstrated on Wednesday calling for free medical check-ups and treatment, and compensation for ruined crops and land, Xinhua reported.

Zhong Yu, who runs a gardening business in Shuangqiao, one of the worst-hit villages, said the Xianghe Chemical Plant was just metres from houses and farmland.

'We have suffered cadmium and indium poisoning for the last six years,' he said.

Cadmium and indium are heavy metals. Cadmium is a chemical element used in battery production, and indium is a key metal used in the production of liquid crystal displays. They can cause digestive system failure and other health problems.

Four thousand people in Shuangqiao have been living on food and water trucked in from elsewhere since May, when laboratory tests on soil samples from the village showed it would not be safe for farming for another 60 years.

Three villagers are believed to have died in Shuangqiao and another one in neighbouring Gankou.

A villager in Gankou who joined the protest said only 1.2 square kilometres of land around the factory had been inspected by the village government and that the area did not include Gankou.

This villager said a 70-year-old neighbour, Tang Haisheng , had died from cadmium poisoning this month.

'Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,' this villager said. The local government had offered 400,000 yuan (HK$454,000) to victims' families to cover up the scandal.

Another 70-year-old man, Xiong Shusheng, died last week and tests found he had 8.9 times the acceptable level of cadmium in his body, Shuangqiao villagers wrote in a blog on internet portal

On July 3, the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ta Kung Pao reported two other villagers in Shuangqiao had died from poisoning and medical checks had found 181 people working at the factory were ill. A resident of Zhentou yesterday named the victims as Luo Bolin and Ouyang Muzhi and said both had died of cadmium poisoning.

'I saw villagers carrying the body of an old man when they protested outside the township government office on Wednesday morning,' said this resident, who would not give his name. He saw police taking the body away, and said it had been burned.

Xinhua reported that the Xianghe plant had begun refining cadmium and indium in April 2004 even though it had not installed all the environmental management equipment necessary.

Phone calls to the plant could not be connected yesterday as it had not paid its bills. Xinhua said the Hunan government and authorities in Liuyang had set up a group to check on the alleged pollution and the villagers' health.