Image: A man holds his child while waiting for blood tests
Andy Wong  /  AP
A father who lives near the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. plant in Baoji, China, holds his child while waiting for a blood test on Tuesday.
updated 8/18/2009 11:03:24 AM ET 2009-08-18T15:03:24

A mayor apologized to residents of two villages — where nearly all the children were sickened by lead poisoning apparently from a nearby smelter — after recent clashes between angry parents and police, state media said Tuesday.

The mayor of Baoji city in Shaanxi province, Dai Zhengshe, arrived at the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. plant on Monday when hundreds of villagers were protesting , tearing down fences and blocking traffic outside the factory, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

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.

At least 615 out of 731 children in the two villages near the Dongling smelter in the town of Changqing in Baoji 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.

In Changqing, where the villages lie, Mayor 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.

Defiance
Villagers were enraged by the plant's apparent defiance of an Aug. 6 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.

A man surnamed Ma who lives in the Madaokou village, about 500 yards from the factory, said residents believed at least two villagers were taken from their homes by police Monday night.

Ma said the Baoji city government sent eight officials to his village Tuesday to try to pacify residents.

"They wanted to persuade us not to cause trouble, but they didn't provide any solution to our problems," Ma said by telephone.

Associated Press journalists outside the factory 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. The windows of the factory's reception area and security office were shattered.

A few hundred children were being tested Tuesday for lead poisoning in a school in Luobosi village in Changqing.

The mayor said the plant halted production only on Monday, more than a week after the stop-work order was issued, because of safety reasons, according to Xinhua.

"We had to make sure the gas in the pipeline was exhausted before the plant was finally shut down," Dai said in the Xinhua report. "Now we've closed down the plant, we won't allow it to open again until it has been proven it will not harm villagers."

Image: Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. plant
Andy Wong  /  AP
At least 100 police officers were reportedly guarding the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Co. plant in Baoji, China, on Tuesday.

Residents said they could still see and feel the effects of pollution caused by the plant.

"I can still see smoke rising from the chimney of the factory. The air still smells like burning plastic," said a woman from Madaokou who refused to give her name out of fear of official retaliation. "Every morning, I have to sweep up a lot of dust in my yard and whenever it rains, my roof is covered with dust."

Ma, meanwhile, said the surface of the water in the village well was covered with oil.

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.

Calls to the government offices of Fengxiang county and the city of Baoji rang unanswered Tuesday.

More on: China

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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