Located in the northeast of Fujian Province, Pingnan County is the only natural protection area of Mandarin ducks and rhesus macaques worldwide. Despite of a surrounding of green bamboos and clear streams, the county suffered great poverty due to its isolation and backward economy(1).
In order to drive its economic development, Pingnan County welcomed the construction of Rongping Joint Chemical Plant (榕屏联营化工厂), the largest potassium chlorate factory in Asia, which fully opened for production in Xiping Village. The Rongping plant opened here in 1994. It had previously been in Fujian's capital, Fuzhou. Officials relocated it to take advantage of cheap hydroelectric power from Xiping's mountain streams and promote rural economic development. A state-owned chemicals company based in Fuzhou is the plant's majority owner, although the Pingnan County government held a 30% stake until 2004. The Rongping Plant was providing 1/3 of the county’s total tax, which enabled sufficient income for local teachers and carders (ibid).
But meanwhile, pollution started to creep upon nearby villages. After the factory opened, local timber stands, bamboo, fruit trees, and crops were noticeably withering and dying. Fish and shrimp sharply decreased in volume. Villagers began to experience various unfamiliar illnesses, including headaches, nausea, chest tightness and itchy skin. Incidents of cancer increased markedly with diagnoses in Xiping Village surging from 1 death between 1990 and 1994 to 17 between 1999 and 2001 (ibid).
Noticing these health problems, Xiping villagers voluntarily collected waste water and residue discharged by the plant for an official test, which indicated a dangerous level of pollutants, with hexavalent chromium 10 times higher than normal. Chromium pollution may cause diarrhea and skin allergy, and corrode the respiratory passage. It is also known as a carcinogen (ibid).
The villagers believed that the pollution actually commenced in 1992 with the construction of the first stage of the plant, and the second stage, completed in 1998, brought the most serious harm.(2). They linked the damage to their life to the plant and complained to the township and county governments as well as environmental authorities. In January 1995, the plant made a one off compensation to some villagers for their loss of crops, and since then no villagers had received any further compensation.(1) Early 1999, Mr. Zhang Changjian, a local “barefoot doctor”, who was among the first to notice the pollution, organised a letter writing campaign to various government agencies trying to obtain relief. He continued to organize and send a formal petition to China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in 2001. SEPA, feeling the attention national media paid to the villagers’ actions, listed the plant one of the 55 worst polluters in China.
In 2002, the Beijing-based Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) got involved in assisting the villagers (2). Professor Wang Canfa, founder of the centre, inspected the area with a team of environmental experts and journalists.(3) In June the same year, 1,721 plaintiffs, represented by Zhang Changjian and four other villagers, filed a class action lawsuit against Rongping Chemical Plant in the Ningde Municipality Intermediate People’s Court. After a long wait of 2 years, a court session opened and confirmed the environmental damage caused by the defendant. The compensation ordered by the court, however, was 249,736 yuan, which only accounted for 1.8% of the plaintiffs’ required amount of 13,534,640 yuan. Both parties disagreed with the sentence and consequently appealed to the Fujian Provincial High People’s Court.(1) Three years later, the Fujian Provincial High People’s Court’s final judgment ordered Rongping Plant to immediately cease the infringement; to compensate villagers 684,178.2 yuan for their losses to crops, bamboo, timber and so on; and to clean up its chromium-containing waste.(2) The compensation equates to roughly 397 yuan per plaintiff, earning the so-called landmark environmental case an ambiguous victory.(4) The final execution of compensation and legal cost did not take place until 2008.(5) The plant provides 1/3 of the county’s annual tax and other revenues, and this economic benefit to the local government secures its operation and makes judgment difficult to obtain. The plaintiffs criticised the local government for continuously taking the side of the plant; for example, when they went to the county centre to raise funds for the lawsuit and disseminate knowledge on environmental protection, the government accused them of conducting illegal fundraising and confiscated the donation box. Another striking way of silencing opposition happened when China Central Television’s News Probe made a programme on Nanping’s pollution; the day of the screening of the show, the county experienced an unexpected power cut.(1)