Chinese mayor apologizes for lead poisoning

CHANGQING: A city mayor apologized to residents living near a smelter after hundreds of children were apparently poisoned by lead from the plant, prompting clashes between angry parents and police in recent days, a state news agency said Tuesday.

The mayor of Baoji city in Shaanxi province, Dai Zhengshe, arrived at the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. smelting plant on Monday amid a protest by hundreds of villagers who tore down fences and blocked traffic outside the factory, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Dai apologized to residents for the poisoning and vowed the plant will not be allowed to open again until it meets health standards, Xinhua said.

Villagers were enraged by the plant’s apparent defiance of an Aug. six order from environmental authorities to suspend operations, Xinhua said. Fighting between angry parents and scores of police broke out Sunday, and trucks delivering coal to the plant were stoned.

At least 615 out of 731 children in the two villages near the Dongling smelter have tested positive for lead poisoning, which can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure, anemia and memory loss. Lead levels in some of the children were more than 10 times the level considered safe by China.

Associated Press journalists outside the factory in the town of Changqing in Baoji saw no signs of workers Tuesday, while about 50 police officers guarded the compound from inside the gate. Another 50 officers sat in police buses.

Signs of the unrest over the past two days could still be seen. The windows of the factory’s reception area and security office were shattered.

China’s breakneck economic development has left much of its soil, air and waterways dangerously polluted, and environmental showdowns with outraged residents are growing. Authorities routinely pledge to close down polluting industries, but often back down because of their importance to the local economy.

Air quality tests done near the smelting plant in Shaanxi found unusually high lead levels, according to Xinhua, although officials say groundwater, surface water, soil and company waste discharge all meet national standards. — AP