HENGDONG - A court in central China on Friday began hearing a closely watched case filed by families who have accused a local chemical plant of being responsible for high levels of lead in the blood of their children and grandchildren.
A Reuters reporter was allowed into the courtroom in the town of Hengdong in Hunan province but prevented from doing interviews.
Lawyers say the case is a test of the central government's resolve to address the human cost of environmental damage caused by decades of unbridled economic growth in China. It is believed to be the first time a Chinese court is hearing a case involving lead poisoning in a group of children.
The trial comes amid a series of public interest lawsuits filed since a revised environmental protection law that came into effect in January enabled the submission of such cases and increased the penalties for polluters.
Thirteen families from in and around nearby Dapu town have accused Melody Chemical, a chemical plant and metal smelter, of pollution that caused elevated levels of lead in the blood of their children and grandchildren. They are seeking compensation, although the precise amount varies by child.
Reuters was unable to speak to either Melody officials or the company's lawyer inside the court. Previous attempts to reach Melody for comment had been unsuccessful.
Plaintiffs and Dapu residents gathered early at the courthouse in Hengdong, a leafy town where the streets are lined with shops, restaurants and internet cafes.
Reuters reported last month that of the original 53 families who agreed to participate in the lawsuit, most dropped out, some because of pressure from local officials. Dapu authorities deny any interference. "This case will be a useful reference for other families affected by pollution, particularly heavy metals pollution, and give them the confidence and courage to use the law to defend their environmental rights," said Dai Renhui, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Dapu's lead problem made national headlines a year ago in an expose by state broadcaster CCTV, in which the head of the township was shown saying children might have raised their own lead levels by chewing on pencils.
After the broadcast, which said more than 300 children had high lead levels, officials opened an investigation and Melody was ordered to shut down.
In children, high lead exposure leads to cognitive delays and behavioural problems and can be fatal at extremely high levels. Its effects are permanent and irreversible. Studies have shown that childhood lead exposure is associated with higher adult violent crime rates.
CHILDREN CAN'T SIT STILL
Li Laiyin, a farmer who lives on the edge of an industrial park in Dapu, said he was unable to add his grandchildren to the lawsuit because he had insufficient medical records.
Li Wenjie, 8, and Li Xiongwei, 12, who were diagnosed with high lead in their blood in 2012, can't sit still at school, Li told Reuters. "The government hasn't given a thought to the safety of the people who live here," he added.
Environmental law experts said the court's acceptance of the lawsuit was a sign of progress, since courts have usually refused to hear controversial pollution-related cases.
President Xi Jinping's recent focus on the rule of law had also sent a message to courts, lawyers said.
On June 1, China's supreme court issued a judicial interpretation which reiterated that even if emissions from polluting companies were within legal limits, they could still be liable for any harm caused.
At the same time, China's environmental problems are decades-old, said Ma Jun, Beijing-based director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-governmental organisation. "These are very deep-rooted problems. There is no silver bullet," said Ma.