About 15,000 residents in 10 villages around lead smelters in Jiyuan, China's biggest lead smelting base, are going to move away from the threat of lead poisoning, after more than 1,000 children were found to have excessive lead in their blood, officials said Friday.
Zhao Suping, mayor of the city in central Henan province, said on Friday the mass relocation would cost 1 billion yuan ($146 million). About 70 percent of the cost will be paid by the government and the smelters, and the other 30 percent will be funded by local residents.
The government is now looking for sites for the new settlements, he said.
The health bureau of Jiyuan initiated blood tests for children on Aug 20 in the wake of a lead poisoning scandal in neighboring Shaanxi province.
The mass lead poisonings in Henan, and earlier this year in Shaanxi, Hunan and Yunnan, sickened thousands of children. The poisonings shed light once again on the dilemma facing many parts of China as industrial development poses threats to the environment and people's health.
A local resident surnamed Li who is in her 60s has two small granddaughters, one who was tested to have 360 mg of lead per liter (mgl) of blood and the other had 520 mgl. The normal content levels of lead in blood range from zero to 100 mgl. Experts say that human health is severely harmed when the content reaches more than 200 mgl.
"I am not satisfied with the current steps by the government," she said. "Many villagers won't use lead-removing medicine because they fear the possible side effects.
"More importantly, I think the government should respond faster and do more to prevent similar cases from occurring."
An official surnamed Li at Shibin village, a national model village, said three relocation sites are available for the villagers.
They will more than likely move to a place about 4 km away from their houses, she said.
"There are serious cases among the affected children, and we understand parents' anxiety about the health condition of their children," she told China Daily yesterday.
"But we need time to cure kids and finish the relocation process."
Once the residents move away from the smelting plants, the companies will rent the surrounding land and then plant trees that will act like a natural barrier to the spread of pollution, officials said.
Yang Anguo, board chairman of China's biggest lead smelter, Yuguang Gold and Lead Group, had mixed feelings when he saw local villagers protesting in front of his plant.
Yang said he still clearly remembers when local residents beat drums and gongs to welcome the factory to their land 23 years ago. During the past two decades, Yuguang Gold and Lead Group has grown from a plant with an annual output of about 10 million yuan into the world's second largest lead smelter with annual sales of more than 10 billion yuan.
Local villagers in Jiyuan used to have good relations with the lead smelters, as many of them were employed by the company and received good salaries.
However, today the relations have turned sour.
In Shiniu Village, which is near Wanyang Smeltery Group and has seen about 100 children poisoned, 60-year-old Wang Shaozhou was worried about his grandson.
"A few people got rich, but the whole village is poisoned. How can we ignore people's health in the process of economic development?" Wang said.
More than 10,000 people in this city with a population of 670,000 are directly employed in the city's 35 lead smelters, and more than 20,000 others work indirectly for the smelters.
"In the pursuit of wealth, neither the company nor local people have given due attention to pollution. The poisoning incident is a lesson for the government, the company and local people," said Yu Bo, an official with the Jiyuan city government.
The city government has provided blood tests for 3,108 children younger than 14 who lived near three major smelters, and 1008 of them had excessive lead levels as of yesterday.
The production has been suspended at 32 of the 35 electrolytic lead plants and on the pollution-prone production lines of the other three major plants in the city.
Li Yuefeng and Xinhua Contributed to the story