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Environment

Coastal villagers count the cost of southeast China toxic chemical spill

  • Fish farmers fear they face a protracted and difficult fight for compensation after a leak devastated their stocks
  • One local reports losing a year’s worth of takings following Sunday’s leak
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 11:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 11:52pm

Xiao Meiru and his family fear they lost a year’s earnings last Sunday after a toxic chemical leak devastated their fish farm in southeast China.

Now Xiao and other families living in the coastal village of Xiaocuo in Fujian province are banding together to fight for compensation but worry they will get bogged down in protracted legal wrangling.

Some of them are holding out until their losses are covered in full, but others such as Xiao want to secure partial recompense as quickly as possible.

“I’ve got a family to feed, so we really need the compensation” said Xiao, who is seeking an initial payment of 1,000 yuan (US$145) for each cage of fish lost, around a tenth of the total value.

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“I was proposing that [we] get part of the money first and then discuss the full package with the liable company. But people are worried that if they agree, that money will be all they can get.”

The fishermen have been discussing about the compensation plan with officials in Quanzhou city for nearly a week, but so far the negotiations have yielded nothing.

“It’s inevitable that we will need to hire lawyers,” said Xiao. “We fishermen don’t know what to say except that our fish have been ruined. We’ll need the lawyers’ help.”

But the involvement of lawyers brings its own problems amid growing local distrust of the authorities following complaints residents have not been fully informed of the scale of the problem.

Xiao spoke to one lawyer from Xiamen city last week, showing him video footage he had shot in the aftermath of Sunday’s leak – but that lawyer was followed by police throughout his visit until he left Quanzhou city and returned home.

“They don’t want us to talk to lawyers or journalists,” said Xiao.

He started farming fish in 1983, beginning with a few cages, each of which can farm about 1,000 fish a year.

He has gradually expanded the scale of his operations and now has 245 cages – which means his losses could total 2.4 million yuan (US$355,000).

Xiao focuses on sea bream and weever, both high-value fish, while other locals cultivate similarly prized species such as abalone and red-spotted groupers.

Although some fish survived the spill, Xiao said they were worth nothing now.

“Nearby fish markets and distributors all heard about the leak and no one will buy any fish from this village this year,” he said.

Local restaurants are also suffering in the aftermath of the chemical leak.

Waiters at Zhoumapo, a popular seafood restaurant, said the number of customers had fallen dramatically this week.

“There was always a queue at lunch or dinner time here,” said one waiter. “Now we have less than a third of the customers we used to get.”

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The major industries in the costal district of Quangang, which includes Xiaocuo, include fish farming and forestry but since the 1990s a number of oil refineries and chemical plants have been built there.

“The factories have made Quangang a unviable place to live,” said a resident in Quanzhou surnamed Kuang, who complained there had been a sharp increase in cancer cases in recent years.

Xiao Renhong, a Xiaocuo resident, was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer eight years ago and said it was the most common form of the disease in the area.

“I don’t know exactly how many people have the cancer in my village,” he said. “But I myself know nearly a dozen such patients and there are about 10,000 people in Xiaocuo village.”

On average around 22 in every 100,000 people in China contract oesophageal cancer, according to the National Central Cancer Registry of China, but the rate in Xiaocuo village is at least four times higher than that.

Xiao Meiru said villagers had unsuccessfully protested when Fujian Donggang Petrochemical Company, the privately owned firm involved in Sunday’s leak, had first proposed building a plant less than a kilometre away from their homes in the early 2000s.

The spill happened when a connecting tube broke as the chemical C9, a toxic by-product of oil refining, was being transferred from the plant to a tanker early on Sunday.

Local authorities said seven tonnes of C9 had leaked into the sea leaving at least 52 people needing hospital treatment.

The chemical can cause burns when skin is exposed to it, and people who inhale it can suffer dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

Both local residents and reporters have so far been unable to contact the chemical firm.