Likeng, approximately 23 kilometres away from Guangzhou’s city centre, was once the site of a small reservoir near Yongxing village. Twenty years ago, vast fields were irrigated with clear water coming down from hills and planted with rice, vegetables and fruits. However, in 1991 the reservoir was replaced by a landfill, which was followed by two incinerators constructed nearby. (1) Earlier in 2015, a comprehensive waste treatment plant completed bidding and is now undergoing its environmental impact assessment. (2) Having failed to stop these projects, Yongxing Village has entered the category of a cancer village.
In the late 1980s when the Likeng reservoir was chosen as the landfill site, the proposal attracted general opposition from Yongxing villagers, and initially caused intense conflicts. Villagers broke into the construction site to smash machines, hoping that they could put a stop to the landfill through riots. Some ended up in jail for several years for disturbing public order. By the end of 1991, the Likeng reservoir was turned into a 518-mu landfill (34.5 hectares), which buried 1000 tons of rubbish on a daily basis. It was only about 300 metres away from the nearest households. The air soon became stinky and villagers had to cover their noses when passing the landfill. (1) As the treatment for sewage was insufficient, during heavy rain it would flow into and pollute the road, fields, local streams and fish ponds. Fish died and water in another reservoir turned black and smelly. (3) Villagers noticed that the water from their wells became thicker than before and the colour gradually changed to yellow with a layer of red film. They tried stopping rubbish dumpers from entering and blocking the mouth of the sewage pipe. Defeated, villagers put their hope into the eventual seal of the landfill. However, before the landfill fulfilled its mission, Likeng in 2000 was once again selected to be the site for the first incinerator in Guangzhou. (1) This project had been forced to relocate five times before moving to Likeng and the construction formally started in 2002. (4) XU Guoqiang, a village carder, put this final decision down to the village’s lack of a powerful high level official. (1) Despite of the government’s promise for the most advanced technology and a 60,000 square meter park, the actual Likeng incinerator resembled a curved silver box with two 90-meter high chimneys on top and was only 126 meters away from the nearest household. The two chimneys emitted white smoke in the day time, black smoke in the night time, and occasionally coloured smoke. The air was filled with strange smells, sometimes sour and other times pungent. (1) As untreated waste was directly discharged into the fields, soil has been seriously polluted with heavy metals. Therefore, Yongxing villagers had been forced to buy drinking water and give up farming and consuming their own vegetables. The fields were cheaply rented out to migrant workers, who had little choice but growing and selling poisonous vegetables to the city. According to villagers, the health authorities were aware of the practice, but nonetheless remained silent. (4) Apart from the polluted environment, the major concern for the villagers became the issue of a sudden increase of cancer cases in the village, which was a controversial issue due to a list of Yongxing village cancer victims posted on the Internet. On one hand, the villagers firmly believed in the direct link between the rising cancer rate and the incinerator and claimed that the actual death number was even higher than the list. (1) On the other hand, the Guangzhou Health Bureau saw the list as groundless and claimed that all exhaust gas and sewage from the Likeng incinerator met the national safety standard. They concluded after a week-long investigation that Yongxing village’s cancer rate appeared normal, if not lower, compared with the national cancer rate. (4) The list was said to be compiled by a journalist who lived in Panyu, another district in Guangzhou. In 2009, residents in Panyu learnt that their area had been chosen as an incinerator construction site. Deeply concerned, Panyu residents turned to Likeng for evidence and simultaneously exposed this "cancer village" to the public. According to the list, between 1993 and 2005 before the incinerator was built, there were only 9 cancer cases in Yongxing village. Afterwards, the number of cancer deaths rose to as high as 42 with 4 more still to be filed and 20 cancer survivors. (1) What’s more, most of the victims died of respiratory tract cancers, such as nasopharyngeal cancer, and lung cancer. (5) However, the local government’s Centre for Disease Control found that the list omitted 27 cancer cases for the period between 1993 and 2005 and with those cases included, there was statistically no difference in the local cancer rates before and after the incinerator, and the increase in respiratory tract cancers was not significant either. In a cross check of the media circulated cancer list, Professor CHEN Ajiang and his team found several discrepancies, among which a considerable one was that 12 alleged respiratory tract or lung cancers on the list were actually liver cancer, stomach cancer and brain tumours. It was alleged that the journalists had modified the list to direct the focus on to the correlation between incinerators and increased cancer deaths.
(3) Unconvinced, most Yongxing villagers still blamed the incinerator for the rapidly rising cancer rate. It is well known and corroborated by the WHO, that incinerators might release dioxins and furans by incinerators due to incomplete burning. (4) Dioxin has been listed as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). (6) However, the management of the incinerator asserted that the incineration temperature had been kept at 979ºC, which was higher than the standard 850ºC, to ensure complete decomposition of dioxin. The assertion was also supported by the Guangzhou Urban Management Bureau, which confirmed that Likeng’s emission of dioxin met relevant EU standards. However, during a site visit a journalist from China Newsweek found plastic bags and half burnt shoes in the black residues pile out side of the incinerator. When questioned, an official from the bureau firmly answered that there must have been something wrong with the journalist’s sight.
(5) By the end of 2011, whilst Panyu’s incinerator project had already been called off, the second phase of the Likeng incinerator was still in full action. Upon completion, there would be 3000 tons of rubbish being transferred to Likeng every day. (1) FAN Zhihui, head of Yongxing village’s committee, thought that the staggering profit made out of the incinerator meant that villagers’ lives would come last on the officials’ list of concerns. The official stance considered incinerators as a means to save land and to generate annually enough electric power for 100,000 households. (4) In the past twenty years, a chain of waste-related industries has evolved in Yongxing, including recycling stations and brickyards, which make bricks out of waste residues and label them eco-friendly. Villagers of the current generation are sacrificing their health for making profit, for they want to save enough money to send their children away. Nowadays when interviewed, villagers will calmly state that it is not just Likeng that has been polluted, because the village’s polluted vegetables, water and bricks are being consumed by the city. The new Likeng comprehensive waste treat plant has been portrayed by the winning bidder as a “demonstration project”, but Yongxing villagers have long stopped believing in those promises, and will continue on the road of petition for their next generation. (1)