Journalists held for investigating metal leaks case

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am

At least eight journalists investigating deaths at a factory in Hunan were taken away by authorities, and residents said last night that some were still being held.

Metal leaks at the factory in Liuyang city have killed at least five people and left hundreds sick.

About 1,000 people laid siege to a local-government office last week over toxic cadmium and indium pollution.

Mainland reporters, including at least one from the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News, were detained while interviewing villagers and taking photos of the Xianghe chemical plant, the culprit behind one of the worst pollution scandals on the mainland in years.

'Township government officials said reporters should not approach us or the factory,' said a resident at Shuangqiao village, the site of the chemical plant.

Journalists were told they could rely on the government for all the information they needed.

Although cadres warned villagers not to talk to journalists, the residents said they were desperate for help and had to pin their hopes on reporters to make their grievances heard.

Tens of thousands of police officers were deployed in Zhentou town yesterday and prevented residents from staging more protests.

Areas around major government buildings were sealed off, according to witnesses.

It was the second time in a week that local authorities had blocked demonstrations by thousands of villagers, who accuse cadres of ignoring their suffering from leaks from the plant, which processed indium and cadmium.

A protest planned for Tuesday morning was called off as villagers faced intimidation from city and town officials.

The protests have attracted nationwide attention and sparked an outcry over what critics have charged is the country's environmental degradation.

According to residents of Shuangqiao, one of the three villages affected most by the metal poisoning, attempts to stage further protests had been closely monitored by the local authorities.

'Hundreds of people from Shuangqiao, Jiankou and Puhua villages went to the township government this morning, but we were not able to do anything because there were too many policemen, including plain-clothes officers,' one of the villagers said.

'We were followed everywhere near the township government buildings, including the police station, by police, so we decided to change our plan and call it off.'

Locals complained that the authorities had paid more attention to curbing protests than heeding their health concerns.

Medical check-ups for people living more than 1.2 kilometres from the Xianghe plant have been delayed since Friday.

The plant had processed indium without approval and discharged untreated life-threatening chemicals since 2004, the provincial government's investigation said.

The government gave free checks to only the 2,888 people who lived within a 1.2 kilometre radius of the plant. They showed 509 of the people tested had high concentrations of indium and cadmium, the latter of which causes failure of the nervous system and lungs.

Citing findings by an official investigation led by the provincial government, authorities insisted people who lived more than 500 metres from the plant had no reason to be worried about their health and drinking water.

But villagers are not convinced and are fed up with bureaucrats, who they say have covered up pollution for at least five years.

They said more protests had been planned for the next few days if authorities failed to come up with solutions to their suffering.