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October 17, 2009

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15,000 to be resettled in Henan city to escape threat from lead

THE government of Jiyuan, where China's biggest lead smelting base is located, plans to move 15,000 residents away from the threat of poisoning, after nearly 1,000 children were found to have high levels of the metal in their blood.

Zhao Suping, mayor of the city in central China's Henan Province, said yesterday the mass relocation would cost 1 billion yuan (US$146 million), of which 70 percent will be provided by the government and smelters, and the rest by local residents.

The government is now looking for sites for the resettlement, Zhao said.

Jiyuan's health bureau initiated blood tests for children on August 20 in the wake of a lead poisoning scandal in other areas.

Mass lead poisonings in Henan, Shaanxi, Hunan and Yunnan provinces have sickened thousands of children, pointing up the challenges facing many parts of China as industrial development threatens the environment and people's health.

Yang Anguo, board chairman of China's biggest lead smelter, Yuguang Gold and Lead Group, said he had mixed feelings when he saw local villagers gathered to protest in front of his plant. Yang still clearly remembers when residents beat drums and gongs to welcome the factory 23 years ago.

Over the past two decades, Yuguang Gold and Lead Group has grown from a plant with an annual output valued at about 10 million yuan into the world's second-largest lead smelter, with annual sales exceeding 10 billion yuan.

Relations had been good between villagers in Jiyuan and the lead smelters, as many people were employed at the plants and paid well. But ties have now turned sour.

In Shiniu Village, which is near the Wanyang Smelter Group and where about 100 children were poisoned, 60-year-old Wang Shaozhou said he was worried about his grandson.

"A few people got rich, but the whole village was poisoned. How can we ignore people's health in the process of economic development?" Wang said.

More than 10,000 people in Jiyuan 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 industry.

"In the pursuit of wealth, neither the company nor local people has given due attention to pollution. The incident (of excessive lead level) is a lesson for the government, the company and local people," said Yu Bo, an Jiyuan government official.

The city government has provided blood tests for 2,743 children under age 14 who lived near three major smelters, and 968 were found to have excessive lead levels. It also suspended production at 35 lead plants.


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