Toxic plant shut down, but Hunan village residents still dying

Residents of communities surrounding a shuttered heavy metal factory say cancer is endemic despite an official clean-up effort

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 4:48am

The Xianghe Chemical plant in the farming town of Zhentou in Hunan province closed nine years ago, but every few months villagers living nearby add another name to their list of neighbours and friends who have died from heavy metal exposure.

Anyone able to move away did so years ago; only the elderly, the ill and the very young remain. Farmers dare not sell their crops - the soil is toxic and the rain is poison, they say.

Severe illnesses - hydrohepatosis, phthisis and the different types of cancer - no longer sound strange to us. We don't know who will be the next to add on the list of the sick or dead
Luo Jinzhi, resident of Shuangqiao village

"Do people elsewhere in the world really understand our suffering?" said Luo Jinzhi, 51, a resident of Shuangqiao village, which sits about a kilometre from the site of the plant. "Our throats, joints and kidneys hurt so much. Those severe illnesses - hydrohepatosis, phthisis and the different types of cancer - no longer sound strange to us. We don't know who will be the next to add on the list of the sick or dead."

Before the plant arrived, Shuangqiao had a population of about 1,000; villagers estimate about 300 live there now.

The plant opened in 2004, ostensibly to make an animal-feed additive, zinc sulphate, but in fact it produced indium - used in solar panels and liquid crystal displays. It discharged untreated effluent containing cadmium and indium, which poisoned wells and seeped into the soil of farmers' fields.

The metals cause digestive disorders and can trigger cancers. After a sustained local campaign by villagers that caught national attention, the plant was closed in 2009. The site was razed and the open storage pools filled in, but the rubble and the husks of a few structures are still there.

That same year officials admitted five people had died from cadmium poisoning, and medical examinations of people living within 1.2 kilometres of the site found almost 600 had been seriously affected by exposure to zinc and cadmium. Villagers say the true number of people dangerously exposed is twice or three times higher than the official number.

Local authorities remain tight-lipped about new cancer cases. But villagers are keeping their own records. Whenever they learn a neighbour has died, they visit the relatives and confirm the cause of death. One list contains the names of 26 villagers; one is as young as 44, the oldest is 90. All the victims came from the three villages that sit closest to the site - 16 from Shuangqiao, six from Jiankou and four from Puhua.

Another list compiled by residents and seen by the South China Morning Post contained at least a dozen names of people from the three villages that residents say had been diagnosed with cancer. "Officials are turning a blind eye to the deaths and illnesses," Luo said. "The first and second person died in May of 2009 … a sixth person in October that year and a seventh in November … the 26th person died in March this year."

Local authorities spent 16 million yuan (HK$20 million) cleaning the soil as part of 93.48 million yuan clean-up. Both efforts were completed in July of last year. Officials said the land was safe to farm again. "The case should be filed and the villagers should move on with their lives," an official said.

Villagers scoff wearily at such claims. Every year, they say, seasonal rains wash even more toxic soil from the plant site onto their fields. In August of last year, Luo collected soil samples from her farmland, which sits no more than 100 metres from the plant. She sent the samples to a laboratory at Nanjing University for analysis. Testing found the cadmium level was 93.8 milligrams per kilogram. National standards state farmland should contain no more than 0.3 to 0.6 milligrams of cadmium per kilogram.

"The result scared all of us," Luo said. "We once sent samples from nearby land to check in 2009 soon after the factory closed. The samples contained only 1.6 milligrams per kilogram at that time."

Officials dismiss her tests as unscientific. One official with the municipal government of Liuyang , who refused to give his name, said: "All polluting and poisonous raw materials were moved from the factory in 2009."

According to the official, only 261 villagers in total have excessive levels of cadmium in their blood, and the rest have already recovered from any ill-effects of exposure.

The local government offered one-off compensation of 3,800 yuan for all residents living within a 500 metre radius of the site - regardless of their health status - as well as a one-off payment of 1,200 yuan for every mu, or 667 square metres of farmland, owned by villagers. But residents who took the money had to sign an agreement promising not to join any related petitions.

No matter what the authorities claim about the safety of the villages, the teenagers and young adults of Shuangqiao continue to leave. Li Songlin moved his family of 11 to Liuyang. "We are farmers but have lost our land. We can work only as labourers and must support our children. We can't stay near the plant - we can't let our children drink the water there. They already suffer from lead poisoning because of the pollution."

The villagers who stay behind struggle to make a living. Their village, they say, is dying.

"We don't dare farm the polluted land. Who will buy our crops? Even we don't dare to eat them," said Luo Shenqiao, another villager. "Many young people have to leave the village and work in other provinces as labourers. The elderly and ill stay here - here in the wasteland."