Officials 'turned blind eye' to death factory

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2009, 12:00am

The humming machines of the Xianghe Chemical plant in Liuyang city, Hunan, ran day and night.

They stopped only when the boss got a special call 'from above' - and that always happened before environmental inspectors' 'sudden visits', according to workers at the factory at the heart of one of the mainland's worst pollution scandals.

The untreated toxic waste flowing freely from the plant killed at least five people over the past six years and left hundreds sick before the factory was closed. It triggered a large protest last week as angry residents laid siege to a local government office.

Another protest planned for yesterday failed to go ahead after villagers were subjected to hours of coercion and persuasion by officials. But the case has exposed the link between money and power that is responsible for many pollution tragedies on the mainland.

'Yes, officials from the environment protection bureau did come from time to time,' a middle-aged worker who refused to be named said. 'But they only stayed in the office building and drank tea with the boss. They never, ever, came to see the production line.

'The boss always got wind of it before environmental inspectors visited. He would then tell us to stop production.

'When we turned on the machines, we always had to make sure the front gate was locked.'

In Zhentou town, Liuyang city, residents say the environmental protection bureau's collusion kept the factory in operation for so long.

They accuse environmental officials of covering up for the factory, despite knowing the damage it was causing. 'They're the ones in charge of pollution control and they must know better than anyone else about how devastating the pollution can be. But all they can see is money,' one villager said.

Chen Wenbo, the director of Liuyang environmental protection bureau, was sacked on Monday in the wake of the protests, Xinhua reported.

Xiong Zanhui, the deputy mayor of Zhentou town, was arrested yesterday for taking 100,000 yuan (HK$113,000) in bribes from Xianghe Chemical plant.

But for many people in Liuyang, the failings of these officials is just the tip of the iceberg.

Chen is the second environmental protection chief brought down by a pollution scandal. His predecessor, Yuan Nianshou , was arrested in August 2003 for taking bribes. Chen had promised he would be clean and tough when he took up the job.

Yet despite mountains of evidence and years of complaints, the environmental protection bureau allowed the Xianghe factory to keep operating.

In a letter in reply to a complaint from a resident on March 24, the bureau was still defending the factory's operations.

The letter admitted the factory had breached some regulations but said that management had taken corrective measures after being fined 200,000 yuan.

It said the factory had spent 7 million yuan to build waste treatment facilities and water samples taken from nearby areas showed 'no signs of pollution'. The letter also accused residents of stirring up trouble because they thought their water was contaminated.