Zhang Gongli attends a forum on water crisis and public policy in Beijing in this November 27, 2007 file photo. [Photo/CFP]
HEFEI - Zhang Gongli was delighted to see blue skies and white clouds again in his hometown, a small village in east China's Anhui province.
He and his village, Qiugang in Bengbu City, became famous because of a 39-minute short documentary named "the Warriors of Qiugang," which was nominated for the 83rd Academy Awards for best Documentary Short Subject in Hollywood.
The film followed villagers like Zhang for three years as they fought pollution from nearby chemical factories.
"I am so happy to see the beautiful sky again as it used to be, " said Zhang, the main character in the film and the leader of more than 1,000 villagers in the battle.
He said he appreciated the film's director because he believed the shooting had helped with their battle.
According to the elders in the village, a pesticide factory was built in the 1960s or 70s, discharging foul-smelling gas into the air and dirty water into ponds and rivers. The situation became worse in 2004 when the factory started to produce chemicals, such as dichloroaniline, which is an ingredient for making fertilizers and dyes. The chemicals are highly toxic and had a terrible smell.
Zhang was reluctant to relive the time when strong odors were everywhere and fish lay dead in ponds.
"It smelled like hell. We had to shut windows day and night and stay indoors," he said.
In the village, which has a population of 1,800, more than 20 villagers died at their 40s, 30s and even 20s due to cancer and other fatal diseases.
The situation forced almost all the villagers to protest, requesting the local government and the factories to act to eliminate the pollution. After three years of fight, by writing complaint letters to government, filing lawsuits and even making appeals to Beijing, the village finally succeeded.
All three factories halted production and were relocated in 2008. The companies were not allowed to resume operations until it met emission standards, as requested by the city government.
"Since they've been gone, the terrible smell has also gone and things became much better," Zhang said.
Chen Yun, head of Bengbu City Environment Protection Bureau, said that the government helped the factories clean chemical residuals left in the village, to avoid secondary pollution.
Chen said the city is planning to spend nearly 200 million yuan (30 million U.S. dollars) to improve the quality of water in Baojiagou River, where Qiugang is located.
The government also invited local people like Zhang to act as environmental supervisors, who are now responsible to report any cases of pollution to the government.
Despite the factories' removal, the influence of the past problem still lasts; the land near the factories remain barren and the villagers have received no compensation.
According to Zhang Gongcui, a nurse at the village clinic, some villagers are still suffering from diseases such as allergic throats and chronic bronchitis.
Villager Han Baoqin said her daughter was diagnosed with cervical cancer and then uraemia. She said that it was impossible for peasants to afford medical bills for such ailments.
"We don't know how much the diseases were related to the pollution, but we had to endure the burden to treat my daughter," she said. "The rural medical insurance is far from being enough."
Han said her family had applied for government subsidy to major diseases, but has yet received an answer.