Environmental groups in China are taking unprecedented legal action against the authorities over industrial pollution.
A huge pile of chromium-6, dumped near villages close to the southwestern city of Qujing has become the focal point for the campaign.
Fifteen-year-old Wu Wenyong has two different types of cancer. There have been complaints of unusually high rates of the disease in the area.
Standing by his bedside in hospital, his father Wu Shuliang said at first they did not know what his illness was.
“The doctors also said it was hard to say how it happened. Our plot of farmland was just next to the chromium slag. The factory even dug a drain next to our land for the runoff,” he said.
5,000 tonnes of chromium-6 polluted the Nanpan river. The local company responsible was ordered to shut down production and five people arrested for illegal dumping.
But locals want to know why it happened in the first place. “Why was a chemical factory built here and not in Beijing or Shanghai?” asked one villager. “Because there, people are watching.”
Studies have linked the chemical to cancer. Greenpeace is part of a coalition of lawyers and environmental groups who have filed a lawsuit in a special environmental court.
“It’s the first time an environmental protection organisation is recognised as the accuser in a public service case. This means that groups like ours can in future represent bodies who’ve had no voice under the current judicial system,” said Ma Tianjie, who heads the toxic campaign for Greenpeace in China.
Laws regulating chemical disposal have been poorly enforced in China. Few expect millions of peasant farmers to influence the authorities.
But the Qujing case will provide an interesting test for environmental protection and individual rights.