Following a list of chemical factories sent to us by Ray from the Beijing office, we aimed to visit Qingbaijiang first. Our Toxics campaigner, Yihua, is in charge of prioritizing the list of factories. She seems to have some kind of fate with chemical plants. In her few years at Greenpeace, she has visited countless chemical factories to examine their sewage treatment systems. She can tell apart more chemical odors than you could pick out spices in the kitchen. Our other team members include Liu Bing, who is in charge of images, and myself, Zhong Yu, who is in charge of safety, driving, and maintaining communication with the head office.

We decided to visit six chemical factories today, one of which is a phosphate factory that refused to stop production. The other five have heeded the government’s call to suspend all production of chemicals. The speed with which the government reacted to the earthquake has been impressive. One of the chemical factories, located in Shifang, told us that local safety and environmental protection departments had visited them within an hour after the quake, demanding them to shut down.

Believe it or not, it was thanks to our Cherokee that we discovered the phosphate factory still in operation. As soon as we left Chengdu, our engine began to hiccup. We put-putted to Majing Town and decided to have the engine checked out. We struggled to find a garage but only found a shop that fixes farm equipment. It didn’t take long for the mechanic to figure out that he would not be able to fix our jeep. So we headed back onto the road, but traffic was pretty bad. That’s when we saw the small factory, tucked away behind the garage. As we approached, we saw that it was still operating and the air around it was foul.

Sichuan research team member Yue Yihua speaks with the manager of a chemical plant located within the earthquake disaster zoneYihua immediately did a routine assessment of the place. The factory was tipping to one side and the water in its open pipes was a pale murky color. We stepped inside and met with the factory manager, Mr, Xu. He said that officers from the Ministry of Environmental Protection had visited and asked them to suspend all activities. Even though an earthquake which registered 8 on the Richter scale had just occurred only one week ago, with aftershocks still expected, Mr. Xu insisted that his factory was operating safely and did not understand the great risks he was taking. The factory’s name is “ Shifang City Xiangming Phosphate Factory”.

This accidental discovery of the factory made us realize two things: firstly, there are definitely a number of chemical factories that are not obeying the suspension; secondly, even though we may confront the factory owners face to face, they still will not stop operations.

So, we sputtered along in our jeep and reached Shifang. We went straight to a garage to get the engine fixed. The garage owner was a stocky, muscular guy. He welcomed us warmly and kept thanking us for coming to support the disaster victims. We were so touched; the emotions we had suppressed in the past few days threatened to surface. The garage owner checked our jeep and said that he could fix it but would have to wait for equipment to arrive the next day. Despite the condition it was in, the garage owner felt that our jeep should be able to make it to our destination, Deyang – only 20 kilometers away. He even got in his own car and started to lead us to Deyang. But we only managed to go a short way before the jeep broke down completely. We had no choice but to stay the night in Shifang.

The garage owner helped us look for a hotel. The city is filled with refugee camps. We can see blue tents everywhere set up by the government and different makeshift shelters set up by the victims themselves. Shifang Town has about 27 refugee camps. Yingfeng Hotel is the only hotel that is still operating, but it was already full. Many journalists and relief workers like us are looking for a place to stay. The garage manager took us to each hotel to ask for rooms, but none of them were open because they had not been examined by the authorities for safety.

So we returned to the garage and slept on the floor for a night. We were not alone. The garage owner had opened up his shop to everyone seeking shelter. In the 1000 square meter space, 30 people slept on the floor together. The air was well ventilated, but mosquitoes were everywhere. In this period of epidemic prevention, mosquitoes are a real health hazard.

The garage owner’s office became our temporary office. Our three-member team began to organize the day’s notes, check email, and make endless phone calls. And I sat down to type up this blog.

By Zhong Yu,

May 19 2008

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