Increasingly, concern over environmental health in cities and towns across China has led to angry public protests that have halted construction on or closed a number of factories. But after outrage over lead poisoning in a town in central China, authorities aren't turning off the smelters at fault. They're moving the whole town.
The mayor of Jiyuan in Henan province -- home to the world's second-largest lead smelter -- said the relocation of 15,000 residents would cost one billion yuan (146 million dollars), 70 percent of which would be borne by the local government and the smelters responsible for the lead poisoning, while local residents would foot the rest of the bill, Xinhua reported.
After a string of poison scandals across the country involving thousands of sick children have exposed the inability of officials to shut down polluters, this may actually be the best solution yet. "A Few People Got Rich"
Usually factories in violation of environmental laws are punished with only a fine -- up to $25,000 -- and a warning to clean up. Officials may demand that a polluter shut down or pay for relocations, but such orders can be ignored for years, if they're followed at all.
When workers in Jilin fell ill earlier this year, officials dismissed the illness as the symptom of mass hysteria.
For cities like Jiyuan, which rely heavily on single state-run industries for their economic livelihoods, industrial operations are protected by local officials keen on promotions, which are largely based on GDP growth. Factory owners and officials are often in cahoots, and the fancy suits and watches of local cadres make it obvious they're earning more than a government salary.
Shutting factories would also lead to thousands of layoffs. But citizens across China are learning the hard way that livelihoods rest on more than just a steady income.
"A few people got rich, but the whole village is poisoned. How can we ignore people's health in the process of economic development?" 60-year-old Wang Shaozhou told China Daily.
The newspaper describes two girls in the area, one who was found to have 360 mg of lead per liter (mgl) of blood and the other 520 mgl. The normal content levels of lead in blood ranges from zero to 100 mgl.
Excessive levels of lead are dangerous, particularly to children, who can suffer stunted growth and mental retardation. China, where health concerns have blossomed in recent years, already suffers from two birth defects a minute. Earlier this year, one government official notably linked that statistic to pollution.
The Show Must Go On
The Jiyuan government "suspended production" at 32 of the 35 electrolytic lead plants in the area, Xinhua reported.
Even if the residents of Jiyuan are relocated with little incident, it remains unclear what "suspension" involves, or how pollution from the lead smelters will be addressed. Moving residents may reduce contact, but it won't stop them from drinking contaminated water and breathing toxic air.
Last month, China's environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, called for new "powerful measures" to prevent pollution by materials like lead. But, as usual, it will be hardly surprising if those measures go unenforced.
A New Twist: Reporting
One glimmer of hope lies in the attention that these poisonings have received in and outside China. If cover-ups and stonewalling are still the norm in China, those tactics are getting harder to get away with. In an unusual move, the head of Yuguang Gold and Lead, the smelter company at the center of the scandal, has admitted responsibility.
It's worth noting that the reporting on the issue in China's English language state-run media is just as robust as any Western news source (and sometimes very similar), reflecting an increasing turn toward transparency, at least on issues of the environment. The Chinese media has also been reporting heavily on the lead poisonings.
More on TreeHugger on Lead in China
Chinese Town Poisoned by Batteries
Chinese Government Testing Confirms High Incidence Of Contaminated Children's Clothing & Furniture
High Levels of Lead in Chinese-Made Women's Accessories
Hannah Montana Tchotchkes: From China, Loaded With Lead
How Stuff Works: What's With China and Lead Poisoning