Sunday, August 16, 2009

XIADIAN, China | Located just downstream from three steel factories, a paper mill and a bone-processing plant, the citizens of Xiadian have grown used to seeing the Baoqiu River turn red, yellow and sometimes white from what they say is untreated industrial wastewater.

The town also has seen at least 50 of its 3,000 residents die of cancer in the past five years; an unknown number of others are being treated for cancer or other pollution-related diseases.

“People get cancer and die; there’s not much to do about it. There’s not much to hope for,” said Mrs. Zuo, a 24-year-old restaurant worker who asked that she be identified by only her last name.

Although she’s been married for almost a year, Mrs. Zuo said she does not want to have children - at least until she can save enough money to move away from the town about 40 miles southeast of Beijing. “Many people want to move out of the village, but they don’t have the money to,” she said.

Xiadian is one of dozens of places in China that local media have dubbed “cancer villages.” Cancers of the liver, stomach and lung and leukemia are all showing up in these villages at rates environmental activists say are above average.

The situation brings into sharp focus the problems of rural communities where environmental protection is less stringent than in major cities such as Beijing.

After years of heavy pollution, the big cities are increasingly pushing their heavy industry to rural areas and away from their more middle-class and environmentally conscious residents.

In Xiadian, Ms. Sun, a shopkeeper who provided only one name, said she knows at least five people who have died of cancer in the past few years, as well as an 18-year-old boy who is battling leukemia.

“Yes, I’m worried about my health,” said Ms. Sun, 61. “We only realized there was a problem in the past three or four years. People began dying; they would die only a few months after getting cancer and couldn’t be cured.”

Ms. Sun said the locals stopped drinking the well water about a year ago, and they no longer use the water for their animals or crops. Drinking water is now pumped in from the neighboring county of Dacheng, and the villagers are given free health checkups once a year.

One man said that being diagnosed with cancer is a source of shame, so patients and their families choose not to talk about it. A lot of the young people already have left the village, he said, leaving the poorer and older villagers behind.

At the local medical clinic, the one doctor on duty refused to speak about the pollution problems or cancer rates, saying he had only recently come back to the village.

Acknowledging the problems, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said last month that it would release $134 million from a special fund to help build wastewater and sewage treatment facilities and ensure safe drinking water in villages throughout the country.

In June 2008, the ministry said half of China’s 800 million rural population did not have access to safe drinking water. Officials said that while the water-quality situation had improved slightly over the past year, the situation still remained “grave.”

According to Wang Weiping, a leading specialist on waste in China, at least one-third of China’s 663 cities do not have centralized garbage-disposal facilities to treat solid waste.

Ms. Sun said the local government also has been urging people to sell their land to developers and move away.

Mrs. Zuo said she knew of at least seven families that have left the village, but that where she lives no developers are trying to buy land.

When people call the local environmental department to report pollution problems, the factories only close down for a few days before starting up again, she said. People got tired of calling, she said, because nothing would really change.

Song Jiebin, a legal specialist at the All-China Environment Federation, said there has been some improvement in the quality of the air, which keeps most residents inside their homes on hot summer days.

“At least now they can open their windows in the evening,” he said. “Before it smelled so bad, people didn’t dare open the windows.”

Mr. Song said it was hard to persuade local officials to take a tougher environmental stance if it might harm the local economy.

“Some officials pursue rapid economic growth at the cost of environmental degradation,” he said. “Others pay much more attention to local environment, so there are different conditions all across China. I think the most important is to make the local officials realize the importance of the environment, because they are the closest to local people.”

Feng Jun, a Xiadian resident, filed a lawsuit against the main steel factory in 2008, but did not win.

Mr. Feng had been trying to get compensation for the almost $88,000 in medical bills he and his family had to pay when both of his daughters were diagnosed with leukemia in 2006. His 16-year-old daughter died about a year later; the other girl survived and is now 13.

Mr. Song said such lawsuits usually fail because it is very difficult to prove a direct link between the pollution and the cancer rate.

“As far as I know, there is no testing institution that can definitively give the truth, so there are always ambiguous conclusions in the testing reports that can’t be used in a lawsuit,” he said.

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