The culprit behind the massive pollution in Shaanxi's Fengxiang county, where toxic chemical waste has poisoned hundreds of children, was once hailed as a model environmental enterprise. But the metal-poisoning scandal in Changqing township not only debunks lies about the 'pollution-free' smelter, it is another wake-up call to the bleak reality of the environmental crisis behind the mainland's economic growth. And unlike the case involving toxic metal leaks in Hunan's Liuyang city in which dozens of local-government and factory officials were detained in a bid to ease public anger, no one from government or the plant has been held responsible for the lead poisoning of more than 850 children in Fengxiang. To the disappointment of tens of thousands of villagers affected by the chemical pollution, local officials have refused to talk about the possibility that the factory and its parent company, Dongling Group, are responsible for the scandal. Although the Dongling plant, which refines zinc, lead and coke, has been named as the source of the pollution, local authorities appear to be more interested in maintaining normal operations at the smelter than in heeding public demands to shut it permanently and move it away. Baoji Mayor Dai Zhengshe even began talking about conditions under which the plant could be allowed to reopen at the height of public anger that saw a violent protest by hundreds of villagers breaking into the tightly guarded factory compound last Monday. While locals are bitter about government leniency towards the polluter, they say it is not at all surprising, as authorities have always protected the plant, one of the biggest contributors to the local economy, over the years despite pollution problems. When the once-beautiful area was chosen by the Dongling Group as the site for the multibillion-dollar smelter six years ago, it was hailed as a huge victory by the county government, keen to attract big investment and industrial projects. Indeed, the smelting plant, which can produce 100,000 tonnes of zinc and lead and 700,000 tonnes of coke annually, has since become a cash cow for the county and Baoji city, which administers Fengxiang. It contributed more than 24 million yuan (HK$27.3 million) to Fengxiang's economy last year, accounting for 17 per cent of the county's annual revenue. Local media often describe the plant as the flagship for the local government's industrialisation hopes. The rags-to-riches story of the founder of its parent company Dongling Group, Li Heiji , has been portrayed as an example to poor farmers. Mr Li, 51, has become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the second-largest city in Shaanxi after turning Dongling Group into Baoji's largest private company over the past two decades. The company's website says Mr Li began in business with a small iron-sheet workshop in his village in the city suburbs in 1988. Now Dongling Group is among China's top 500 enterprises, covering mining, smelting, steel production and real estate, the website says. His influence might be best underlined by his selection as the only deputy to the National People's Congress from the 3.76-million-strong city last year. He likes talking about maintaining high environmental standards while making profits. However, the plant has not been a stranger to controversy over the past six years. Although authorities billed it as the project of the century for the agricultural county, locals were opposed to its construction on their doorsteps, knowing it would eat up their farmland and pollute their villages. They protested and vainly defied government eviction orders to make way for the factory in 2003. After authorities' threats to use force against the villagers did not work well, the government and Dongling Group offered compensation for land losses and financial rewards to those who stopped protesting. The money was well spent. Although villagers complained about worsening pollution and accused local cadres of colluding with the enterprise to cover up pollution for years, no major protests ensued. The plant's chimneys churned out dirty, dark yellow clouds of smoke day and night except during inspections by local environmental authorities. 'The management always got the word about inspection trips days ahead, long enough for them to stop pollution discharges temporarily,' said Yang Yagu , who lived next to the plant and used to work there. Mr Li once proudly said in a mainland media interview that his enterprise in Changqing had set an exceptional example, as it had never been named or shamed over pollution. And even after mainland media reported on the massive pollution emanating from the plant, local environmental authorities still insisted it met all environmental standards. Like Mr Yang, whose 13-month-old daughter tested positive for lead poisoning this month, local residents said they did not realise the devastating consequences of remaining silent about the pollution. Although authorities have promised to shut the Dongling plant, even yesterday locals said they feared it might be allowed to reopen soon. Mr Li has promised to take full responsibility if the plant is found by a government-led investigation to be responsible for lead poisoning. But the villagers say they doubt that will happen, and local authorities are reluctant to decide whether the polluter should be permanently shut down and relocated as thousands of victims have demanded.