The village that's too scared to drink
At least 200 villagers living next to a poisoned river say they have been left to drink polluted water while people living on the opposite bank are being told their drinking water is contaminated and they must drink bottled water only.
The allegation came as authorities in Guangxi autonomous region tried to show it was reacting swiftly to one of the worst toxic spills on the mainland in decades.
And Guangxi's Communist Party chief, Guo Shengkun, promised to severely crack down on polluters, clean up the environment and not to let anyone drink a drop of contaminated water.
Hechi authorities insisted that only two villages were affected by the spill, which saw as much as 20 tonnes of cadmium, a carcinogenic metal, discharged into the Longjiang nearly 20 days ago.
The 220 villagers in Laren and Guangxia in Yizhou, which is under Hechi's jurisdiction, have been living on bottled water provided free of charge by Hechi authorities for at least two weeks.
Just across the river, the 200 residents of Beiji village have received only a written warning of the contamination. According to the notice, issued by Hechi's centre for disease control on January 23, villagers should not drink water from the river, the Longjiang, following contamination by unspecific heavy metals.
Beiji residents said they were sent the notice after Yizhou environmental officials took away samples of drinking water for tests before the Lunar New Year, which began on January 23.
As well as angry at being treated differently from villagers across the river, the residents of Beiji say they have been kept in the dark about the health hazards posed by cadmium.
They were also told by Yizhou authorities that it was safe to drink from a freshwater source just a few steps from the polluted river, according to villager Long Binggang.
'We have been left in the lurch as we are not offered any alternative water source, while many of my fellow villagers can't even afford to buy bottled water themselves,' Long added.
More than 30 villagers, each representing a household in Beiji, went to petition the Yizhou city government yesterday afternoon, demanding health check-ups, fair treatment and to know the truth about the extent of the contamination.
Environmental and health officials, however, were sticking to their previous assertion that the quality of drinking water in Beiji met the national safety limits and villagers should not worry about the cadmium pollution.
Villagers were extremely disappointed with the explanation.
'How could it be possible that our water is safe to drink but water from across the river is substandard and posing a danger to health?' asked one villager, who refused to be named for fear of reprisals.
While Yizhou authorities have promised to conduct another test on their drinking water, villagers expressed their distrust in the authorities and said they did not believe they would ever get independent, credible test results.
A leading expert with the government-led task force handling the spill has said that as much as 13 tonnes of cadmium is still left undissolved in the river, posing an immediate health and environmental challenge as well as a long-term problem.