Lead Poisoning Incident in Shaanxi Leads to Protests, Rights Infringements Reported

November 30, 2009

The discovery of lead poisoning in children, due to heavy metal pollution from a metal smelter, led to protests by hundreds of residents in Shaanxi province in August 2009. The case highlights ongoing lax compliance with environmental laws and policies, government accountability gaps, and insufficient protection for citizens' environmental rights, including that of access to environmental information in China. In response to the highly visible and contentious Shaanxi lead poisoning case and the wave of other lead poisoning cases in several provinces, the central government announced a provisional plan to better manage heavy metal pollution across China without making details of the plan public.

One of several recent cases in China of lead poisoning in children that occurred in Fengxiang county, Shaanxi province garnered national and international attention after citizens protested in August 2009. During the incident, parents of affected children first utilized institutionalized channels to seek remedies for their children's environmental health problems, but then resorted to street protests. The case highlights ongoing lax compliance with environmental laws and policies, government accountability gaps, and insufficient protection for citizen's environmental rights, including rights of access to environmental information in China. In spring 2009, tests revealed that several children living near the Dongling smelter had above-standard blood lead levels and on August 15, authorities concluded that pollution from the Dongling Smelter in the Changqing Industrial Park was linked to elevated blood lead levels in 851 children out of 1,016 tested, according to an August 21, 2009, Beijing News article (via China Law Information Net). In April, one of the parents of an affected child informed the management committee within the Changqing Industrial Park about the lead poisoning but reported that up until August 6, no action had been taken by the committee, according to the same article. In response, residents surrounded the smelter gate on August 3-4, 2009, as reported by the Beijing News article. The Baoji city Environmental Protection Bureau finally issued an order on August 6 for the smelter and an associated coking workshop to shutdown, but the coking workshop did not comply with the order, according to a Jinyang Net article (via Pai'an Net―Shaanxi Legal Net).

Hundreds of residents staged a sit-in for two days outside the local government building beginning on August 15, but officials remained unresponsive, according to a September 13, 2009, Times of London article. On August 17, hundreds of angry residents surrounded the smelter, tore down segments of a wall, ransacked some offices, stoned coal delivery trucks, and destroyed machinery at the smelter, according to the Times article. An August 19, Associated Press article (via Food Manufacturing), citing Xinhua reported that protesters were angry because the company had continued to defy the August 6 order to stop production. It is unclear if citizens were aware that the Ministry of Environmental Protection also had issued a directive to shut down the smelter's operations on August 16, 2009, as described below, which reportedly was implemented the next day. In response to the protests, thousands of police and security personnel encircled the area, and according to a source cited in the Times article, "hundreds of young men ran away to escape arrest." It remains unclear if officials eventually detained or formally arrested residents involved in the protests.

Authorities Warn Against Talking to Journalists, Restrict Blood-Level Tests

After the protests, Shaanxi officials suppressed citizens' freedom of expression and denied residents access to medical tests. After the protests in Fengxiang, police and plainclothes toughs reportedly hassled international reporters trying to cover the story and warned local citizens they would face repercussions if they talk to the media, according to the Times article. According to an August 21, 2009, article on the China Media Project Web site, the Chinese media outlet, Xinhua, a "mouthpiece" of the Communist Party, "[took] the initiative" in reporting about and guiding public opinion domestically regarding the Fengxiang case, which included criticizing the company involved. The article asserted that China's commercial media largely remained silent on the Fengxiang case, allowing Xinhua Online to control the discourse or "grab the megaphone." The Times article reported that officials were restricting doctors from conducting tests for lead poisoning to babies brought in by officials in order to stem citizen protests. One doctor reportedly told journalists that officials had ordered hospital staff not to send blood lead test samples to a nationally recognized lab in Xi'an as had been normal practice; instead, staff reported "...(w)e were told that if anyone must be tested they should be sent for a less reliable test at a local health centre."

Authorities and Polluting Enterprise Did Not Inform Public About Pollution

Authorities infringed upon citizens' legal right of access to information by not informing the public about instances of above-standard pollution emissions from the smelter. An August 19, Xinhua article (via China Youth Daily) reported a local citizen as saying the Dongling Smelter had not made public instances when its pollution levels were above standard, although according to the Beijing News article, the Dongling Smelter's pollution levels exceeded standards in three instances between July 2008 and July 2009. According to Articles 11 (13), 20, and 21 of the Environmental Open Government Information Regulation, a list of enterprises whose released pollutants exceed national or local standards shall be made public by environmental departments and the relevant enterprises should within 30 days of the list's issuance release "the names of major pollutants, their methods of discharge, the toxicity and amount of discharge....and the amount in excess" [of standards] to "major media outlets."

Smelter Long-term Source of Citizen Grievances

The Dongling Smelter had been the subject of citizen grievances in 2003 amid plans to construct the smelter and again in 2006 after it was implicated in a water pollution incident. In 2003, the proposed construction of the Dongling Smelter led citizens in nearby villages to voice a variety of grievances about the amount of land given to the company building the smelter, about the amount of compensation for farm land, and about the coercive measures used by officials to obtain the land, according to the Beijing News article. The same news article reported that according to a 2004 environmental impact assessment report, residents within one kilometer of the smelter should have been moved, however, only 156 households out of 581 were moved. The article cited one resident who recalled that people were worried about the pollution problems from the plant during its construction. In 2006, pollution from the smelter, which had just opened operations, seeped into nearby water wells making them putrid, as described by one resident. In response, citizens surrounded the smelter for several days in protest, according to the report. The report cites sources who said that each year after the plant was operational, the Dongling company sent teams of workers to be treated because of lead poisoning. As reported by the Times article, Chinese domestic journalists who investigated the 2009 lead poisoning cases had discovered that local officials had needed the smelter's revenue to meet their economic targets, so they made a pact with the company.

Authorities Respond as Public Attention Grows

After the lead poisoning cases garnered attention, the Fengxiang county government reportedly "adopted a more positive attitude" toward addressing citizen grievances, according to the Beijing News article. On August 18-19, 2009, local officials considered emergency plans to move remaining residents away from the area around the smelter, according to the same article. An August 18, 2009, Xinhua article (via the Central People's Government of the PRC Web site) reported that the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued the order to shut down production at the Dongling Smelter on August 16, which the company reportedly executed the next day, including shutting down the coking workshop associated with the smelter. As reported by the Beijing News article, on August 19, the Baoji city vice mayor announced that work to shut down the smelter would be completed by August 21. The Shaanxi and other lead poisoning cases, which also led to citizen protests, prompted national environmental officials to promise new measures to address heavy metal pollution, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection in cooperation with other ministries recently passed a provisional plan in line with this goal, as reported by a September 4, 2009, Wall Street Journal article (subscription required). The plan is still pending approval by the central government. According to the article, authorities did not release the plan or many of its details to the public. Some Chinese citizens have faced repercussions for drawing attention to environmental problems.

See a prior Commission analysis. For background information on climate change and environmental governance, see Section II―Climate Change and Environment in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.