Villagers Attack Factories over Pollution in Eastern China

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More than 100 villagers rampaged through a tannery complex in Quanzhou in China’s eastern Fujian Province on April 9, attacking several factories over their air and water pollution, the local paper Strait News reported.

Attacks on four factories took place between 8 and 10 p.m., including a leather manufacturer, a sewage treatment plant, and a resin factory. Armed with steel rods, villagers from the neighboring villages smashed windows and looted canteens, offices, and warehouses. No one was injured in the incident. 

What incited the attacks was growing anger over the air emissions and wastewater discharges from those factories. The major culprit being blamed is Pu’an Tannery Sewage Treatment Plant, an auxiliary facility that started its first phase of operation last August with a daily treatment capacity of 5,000 tons.

One villager, surnamed Zhong, from neighboring Zhong Cuo Village, said the sewage treatment plant had dramatically affected the lives and agricultural productivity of adjacent settlements since it began operation. “It has affected 50,000 to 60,000 villagers,” Zhong told Strait News.

The flowing black discharge from the sewage treatment plant, Zhong said, had contaminated nearby farmlands. “It pollutes the water. It becomes a major problem for irrigation. Large quantities of crops died. And now it’s very hard to find clean irrigation sources,” he claimed.

Drinking water has been affected as well, noted Zhong. Lacking tap water, villagers must draw their drinking water from wells. But the water quality has been worsening and become increasingly distasteful. The plant also released foul air emissions, causing nausea and headaches among villagers. “People will get sick if this lasts for too long,” Zhong said.

One authority with the tannery company admitted that the sewage plant had emitted strong odors in the past. But he noted the situation has improved since March 5, when the company invited experts from Nanjing’s Southeast University to upgrade the facility. Since the visit, the chemical oxygen demand (COD) had fallen from 3,000 milliliters (ml) per liter to only 500 ml/liter. “We are aiming at a first standard of 100 ml/liter. It’s estimated to be achieved by this July or August, after we finish the upgrading,” the company spokesman said.

Local government authorities and police launched an investigation immediately following the attacks, and local environmental agencies began mediation activities the next day. The agencies are conducting an overview of the plant and have already drafted a plan for further improvement of the facility.

The attacks were just the latest in a string of such incidents in China. Social unrest over pollution is increasingly common, as residents become better informed about environmental pollution and are encouraged by other protests that have been successful in attracting attention and getting problems addressed more quickly and fairly.

"Since the Songhua spill and greater publicity of rural protests over the past year, local governments are coming under pressure to respond to environmental problems in a more timely manner. This case also hints that local environmental protection bureaus may be getting greater power to respond proactively to such incidents," said Jennifer Turner, head of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C.