BEIJING / NEW YORK —
A local government in China’s Inner Mongolia has ordered the closure and relocation of a chemical industrial park following weeks of anti-pollution protests. The order comes shortly after police launched a massive crackdown that a U.S.-based rights group says left one protester dead and injured dozens of others.
Inner Mongolia’s Naiman Banner government said in a statement that in addition to ordering all of the companies in the park to shut down their operations, an investigation also will be conducted into Tongliao Longsheng Chemical Company.
A local villager, who did not want to be named, confirmed the government statement during a phone interview with VOA. "The protest is over, the government compromised and announced Monday that it would close the refinery," he said.
The company has yet to comment on the investigation, but it is not the first time the issue of waste from the park has been a source of tension in the area.
Last year, an investigative report by state broadcaster CCTV highlighted concerns of local residents about how wastewater from the park was affecting the local environment and the lives of villagers nearby.
Zhao Yun, who lives in a village that was believed to be one of the most polluted in the region, told VOA the problem has gotten very serious.
"Our water was polluted, then we switched to tap water, but soon after two or three years, tap water went bad too, lots of people got sick, lots of people got cancer, the air got smelly, fruits and flowers died," he said.
In response, China’s Environmental Ministry fined the wastewater treatment facility at the park last December for its illegal discharge of waste, naming Tongliao Longsheng and two other chemical companies, according to a statement posted online.
The statement added that operations at the park were not to be resumed until the environmental problems were addressed and improvements were completed.
Protesters who have been rallying for weeks in Naiman against the park have said wastewater from the facility is dumped directly into grazing lands and farmlands.
One local resident told the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center that “a number of villagers have become sick and the miscarriage rate is soaring among pregnant women” there.
“Our livestock are being poisoned to death and crops and vegetables are inedible,” the resident added.
The rights group said that when police cracked down on protesters, 100 people were injured and one person was killed when more than 1,000 villagers clashed with 2,000 riot police. It also said that 50 had been arrested in the wake of the clashes.
Hospital and security officials in Naiman Banner were unable to be reached for comment.
Although the government has promised to close all the chemical plants inside of the industrial park, Zhao Yun said local residents will make sure the government keeps its promise. “We will wait until 11th. If those enterprises do not move to another address, we will still go to protest," said Zhao.
Enghebatu Togochog, director of a Southern Mongolia rights group, told VOA he is suspicious of promises to close the plants because they bring such big economic benefits to the local government.
"If government is sure to stop the chemical industry park’s enterprise, they should release the arrested people at the same time. We will watch on whether they will keep their promises. Citizens are discussing the new protest, if they did not keep their promise, we will protest again," he said.
The Naiman Banner government, however, said that those who had blocked the road to the park, smashed cars and instigated the unrest would be handled in accordance with the law. Authorities have yet to confirm, just how many were injured or killed in the clashes or how many have been detained.
State media have remained largely silent on the clashes, but many on social media voiced their support and concern for the protesters. Some said that even if the park was moved elsewhere, it would just mean that other villages would face the same challenges.
Ongoing probe, fallout
Several note that in addition to shutting down the plant, authorities need to continue their investigations and compensate those who have been harmed by the pollution.
China’s government has pledged to get tough on polluters, and it repeatedly has acknowledged the growing concerns of the public with the high environmental cost the country has had to pay for its rapid economic expansion.
Much like the situation in Naiman Banner, however, there is widespread concern that authorities continue to put the interests of businesses and development ahead of the concerns of local residents.
Although authorities have stopped reporting on the number of “mass incidents” - or protests - that China sees each year, the number is continually rising, and protests about environmental pollution are increasingly common.