HANDAN, China - Hebei province, home to many of China's most polluted cities, has promised to close down companies that are poisoning the environment, but after years of protests villagers living in the shadows of the Guantao chemical park remain sceptical.
Though festooned with banners calling for the construction of "beautiful villages" and the "upgrade" of Hebei's highly-polluting heavy industries, the sprawling complex of chemical plants shadowing the villages of Nansitou and East Luzhuang often operates unchallenged by environmental regulators, residents say.
They say local authorities turn a blind eye to factories that pollute air, water and land. In particular, they claim that the plants do a lot of their dirtiest work at night when inspectors are rarely seen.
"They just don't come," said a resident who would only identify himself by his surname Zhang. Near his home was a patch of burnt undergrowth, the result of a vehicle carrying hazardous chemicals catching fire earlier this year, sending plumes of pungent smoke through the streets.
"I gave them a call but none of them came," he said. "We can't stand the smell and there's suddenly smoke everywhere."
Provincial and municipal environmental authorities did not respond to requests for comment, but an inspector surnamed Liu, who is responsible for monitoring Guantao Park, told Reuters by telephone that the facilities were under 24-hour surveillance.
In a bid to tackle the environmental impact of four decades of untrammelled growth, China is in the fourth year of a "war on pollution" and has promised to take action against persistent offenders and the local governments that protect them.
Hebei's proximity to Beijing - it virtually surrounds the capital and produces about a third of the particulate matter that often chokes the city - has put it on the front line. The villages are on the outskirts of the steel city of Handan, which official figures show had the most polluted air in the first four months of this year.
In an archive of nearly 11,000 complaints submitted to the Hebei government in the past nine years and made available online (www.hbepb.gov.cn), around 700 cases from across the province involved incidents of nocturnal pollution, with many complainants saying that local environmental bureaus did not have the clout to tackle the problem.
Gao Hongzhi, Handan's party secretary, told Reuters on the sidelines of China's annual parliamentary session in March that pollution at night remained a problem, and officials were working to rectify it.
"Some enterprises are reckless and they use the cover of night to emit pollutants," he said, noting the city was now tracking late-night power consumption to catch culprits in the act.
"In 2014, we discovered more than 100 enterprises had this kind of problem, but last year it was down to around 40. This issue is very important and we are paying attention to it."