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‘No Such Thing as Justice’ in Fight Over Chemical Pollution in China

Signs of Something Wrong

Staff members at Dapu Elementary School were startled. Children at the school were showing signs of hyperactivity and memory loss at an alarming rate. Teachers spent hours drilling geography and math into their students, but the following morning, many seemed to have forgotten the material.

Seeking answers, parents brought their children to hospitals in the provincial capital, Changsha, and in Shanghai, 600 miles away. Doctors ordered blood tests and discovered a pattern: The children showed unusually high levels of lead in their blood. By the spring of 2014, lead poisoning had been diagnosed in more than 300 children.

For years, residents had accused Meilun of polluting the town. The plant stood in the center of a densely populated stretch of homes, vegetable markets and rice paddies.

When Dapu residents challenged the wisdom of allowing Meilun to operate so close to homes and schools, local officials were defiant. Meilun, formerly a state-owned plant, was one of the town’s biggest employers, with more than 100 workers at its peak, and it generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.

Across China, a similar refrain was spreading. Chemical plants were popping up by the hundreds of thousands — alongside train tracks, public housing complexes, rivers and farms.

China forbids facilities with hazardous chemicals to operate less than two-thirds of a mile from public buildings and major roads, but the rules are often violated. Lax enforcement contributed to a series of accidents, including the deadly explosion at a chemical plant in the port city of Tianjin two years ago, one of the worst industrial disasters in China’s history.

In Dapu, few companies could rival Meilun’s influence. When officials from the local environmental bureau accused the Meilun plant of violating emissions rules in 2013 and 2014, the plant’s leaders called senior party leaders in Hengdong County to object, employees said. The regulators quickly dropped their complaints.

As public anger grew, China Central Television, the influential state broadcaster, aired a report that outlined the problems in Dapu and featured students who complained of stomach pain and nausea.

In one segment of the report, Su Genglin, the head of Dapu’s government, said students may have been poisoned by chewing on pencils, though they contain graphite, not lead.

The report stirred popular outrage and forced the factory to halt production.

But Mr. Su stayed in office. The land remained highly toxic, according to tests by local environmental activists, and there was no plan to clean it up. Many children continued to be afflicted with symptoms related to lead poisoning. The government offered free milk to treat them, suggesting incorrectly that it could flush the lead out of their bodies.

On a recent morning, Mao Baozhu, 63, watched over her young grandson, who suffered chronic stomachaches and memory loss. They lived across the lane from the former Meilun plant, and tests showed the lead in his blood at six times international safety standards, one of the worst cases in Dapu.

Ms. Mao said she had once walked among the cedar trees as a young woman. Now the earth was a wasteland, covered with tree stumps and jasmine bushes that had lost their scent. She held her grandson’s hand. “This isn’t the life we imagined,” she said.

Source: NYT > World

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