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Wei Dongying, the "Erin Brockovich" of China, says in spite of gov't vow to address pollution, her "cancer village" is still a killer

BEIJING Wei Dongying has been called the Erin Brockovich of China. She says cancer rates in her home of Wuli Village have spiked because of pollution. One of her neighbors was the most recent to fall ill.

"He was more than 70 years old. He was healthy until the Chinese New Year, when he said he couldn't eat anymore," Wei told CBS News. "He died of esophagal cancer last month."

Wuli Village is in the suburbs of Hangzhou, one of the most picturesque cities on China's east coast. Hangzhou Lake has inspired Chinese poets and painters for centuries and remains a popular tourist destination.

The estuaries in Wuli, just 18 miles away, provide a sharp contrast. Chemical and textile factories opened in Wuli in the early 1990s, and today some 300 textile facilities line its main estuary. Once a prosperous fishing village, residents say Wuli has become one of China's hundreds of "cancer villages."

The dubious distinction has been given to villages where industrial pollution has been linked to high rates of disease. Cancer mortality rates in China have risen 80 percent over the last 30 years, and the government has deemed half of the country's rivers and lakes unsafe for human contact. Greenpeace estimates that one in seven people in China drink water severely contaminated with hazardous chemicals.

Soon after chemical factories moved into Wuli, the tap water began turning red at times and fish in the river began to die. Since then, Wei says more than 10 percent of the village's population has died of cancer.

Chinese activist Wei Dongying
Chinese activist Wei Dongying sits in her home amid documents recording the illnesses in her "cancer village" of Wuli. Lu Guang/Greenpeace

She sent samples of the red river water to the central government for testing. After the government failed to crackdown on the factories in Wuli, the 46-year-old began keeping what she calls a diary of death, with thumbprint signatures of all the people who have fallen ill.

"We have no solution but to keep a record and let others know what is happening," she told CBS News.

Wei and her husband, Shao Guantong, go fishing at night. Even though they know how polluted the water is, like most of the villagers, it remains a vital source of food.

"We bring our flashlights on walks along the riverbanks, which we use to see the foam and froth on the water's surface," she said. Shao said the factories usually discharge chemical waste between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., under the cover of darkness.

Wei has continued to send water samples and her documentation of the dead and dying to the central government. In February, China officially acknowledged the existence of cancer villages in the country's five year plan. Environmental groups estimate there are more than 400 cancer villages in the vast country. China's Ministry of Environment announced a clampdown on the use of 58 toxic chemicals and promised a crackdown on polluting factories.

"In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters cutting off drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems such as 'cancer villages,'" the Ministry of Environment said in its report.

For Wei, the government's recognition came too late.

"What use is that?" Wei asked. "People have already died in our village. Now after we have cancer and many have died you admit there are cancer villages. Why didn't you deal with this problem when we began protesting? Can this recognition save a single life?"

She says officials have made several promises over the last decade: factories will be required to use a waste water treatment facility; the government will move the factories out of the village or the villagers will be relocated. Wei says none of these promises have been fulfilled, and instead, authorities have vowed to quell dissent.

The local government has threatened the villagers of Wuli with unspecified consequences if they continue their protests. The windows in Wei's home were recently smashed. She told CBS News that the authorities won't silence her as long as the chemical factories continue to pollute the environment, and her neighbors keep getting sick.

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