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Smelter at center of lead poisoning scandal shut down

A SMELTING plant in its northwestern Shaanxi Province has been completely shut down amid public anger over heavy metal discharges that have made more than 600 children ill.

Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. in Fengxiang County in the city of Baoji, had been ordered by environment protection authorities to suspend lead and zinc operations on Aug. 6, after sporadic cases of lead poisoning were reported in children from two villages near the factory site.

But during a protest yesterday this week villagers complained the factory's coke facilities were still operational. The plant produces 100,000 tonnes of lead and zinc and 700,000 tonnes of coke annually.

"The workers were told not to wear uniforms to work, and workshops have been brightly-lit until midnight," said a resident from Madaokou Village, which is in close proximity to the plant.

Baoji Mayor Dai Zhengshe said yesterday coke production had not been halted immediately because of fears gas in pipelines might explode.

He ordered an immediate halt to all production yesterday.

"We had to make sure the gas in the pipeline was exhausted before the plant was finally shut down," said Dai. "Now we've closed down the plant, we won't allow it to open again until it has been proven it will not harm villagers."

Dai, who arrived at the plant midday yesterday amid a protest by hundreds of villagers, apologized for the lead poisoning scandal and its harmful effects on residents.

During the protests villagers tore down fencing and stoned coal-carrying trucks and other vehicles.

Amid widespread lead poisoning fears, Fengxiang county government last week offered free blood tests for 731 children aged 14 and under, 615 of whom were found to have excessive lead levels in their blood. Of those, 166 cases were considered serious, with lead levels of more than 250 mg a liter of blood compared with the normal zero to 100 mg a liter.

Villagers said pollution was apparent even to the naked eye.

A woman surnamed Lei said she had collected a full bowl of black dust while cleaning her roof Sunday. "Whenever Dongling's workshops were operational, you'd see black and silver dust in the air. Stand in the open air for a while and your body would be covered in dust."

Residents have demanded free blood tests for everybody, as the level of poisoning among those older than 14 is still unknown. Dai promised the government would "respond promptly".


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