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Saving China's endangered environment

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"They told me it would be good fertilizer in five years," he said. "Now my land is ruined and my sons and grandson will have nothing."

The villagers were so angry about the pollution that they donated $1,600 to help Dr. Zhang pursue his lawsuit against the factory, but local police confiscated the money and beat up two locals who tried to stand in their way, the doctor says. Filed in 2002, his suit is stuck in the courts, with no sign of when or even if it might come to trial.

When Dr. Zhang confronted the president of the company about the pollution, "He just shook my hand firmly, patted my back and said, 'I think we're going to be great friends.' " The doctor says he hasn't heard from him since.

Dr. Zhang's campaign has not been completely fruitless. The factory stopped dumping its waste down the hillside, storing it on the factory site in a greenish-white pool instead. Company officials say they spent $300,000 on improving waste-water treatment too.

Inside the gates of the factory, a painted wall slogan reads: "Protecting the environment means protecting our productivity."

But when a journalist for government television checked the waste water coming out of a drain in the middle of the night, it was running tomato-soup red. Tests showed levels of chromium 6, a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, at 20 times the allowable limit.

Dr. Zhang says the village suffered a mysterious blackout when the journalist's report aired last year, and he accuses local officials of arranging the power failure to stop villagers from seeing it.

Factory managers declined to be interviewed for this article and local environment officials did not return faxed and telephoned requests for comment.

Asked why he persists with his activism despite all the risk and frustrations, Dr. Zhang said he has no choice. "I can't go back now. If I stop, the government will use me as an example of how you can never beat them.

"Somebody has to speak up, or this village will not survive."

The stench of progress

Booming China is a bust where environmental controls are concerned, with dramatic consequences for its people's health. Factory after factory emits tonnes of toxic chemicals; some go so far as to discharge waste in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

The contaminated atmosphere is blamed for 300,000 premature deaths each year, and acid rain drenches one-third of China's land mass. Despite official harassment, a bold and growing band of environmental activists is challenging official complacency and raising awareness of the dangers of pollution.

..................................Particulate matter

..................................in micrograms

..................................per cubic metres,

Rank....Cities..................1995 to 2001

1-Delhi, India........................187

2-Cairo, Egypt........................178

3-Calcutta, India......................153

4-Tianjin...............................149

5-Chongqing...........................147

6-Kanpur, India.......................136

7-Lucknow, India.....................136

8-Shenyang............................120

9-Zhengzhou...........................116

11-Jinan..................................112

12-Lanzhou..............................109

12-Beijing................................106

13-Taiyuan..............................105

14-Ahmedabad, India...................104

15-Chengdu..............................103

16-Jakarta, Indonesia....................103

17-Anshan.................................99

18-Nanchang..............................94

19-Wuhan.................................94

20-Harbin..................................91

SOURCE: 2004 WORLD DEVELOPMENT INDICATORS

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