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Johnson Controls Disputes Lead Link in China Pollution Fight

Johnson Controls Inc., named by Shanghai as the primary source in a lead-poisoning case last year, said it “disagrees” with any link between its plant in the city and the incident that sickened 49 children.

“We are confident that the plant was operating well below the levels specified by Chinese environmental regulations,” the company said in an emailed statement late yesterday. “Based on all available facts, Johnson Controls disagrees with any interpretation linking our plant’s operation” to the lead contamination incident.

The city said in a statement over the weekend that Shanghai Johnson Controls International Battery Co. and two local companies were responsible for the leak after they expanded their operations or exceeded emission standards. Johnson Controls, the largest U.S. auto supplier, said it will continuing working with the government in a “transparent and cooperative manner” on “scientifically” assessing the issue.

China has cracked down on heavy-metal pollution as authorities seek to assuage public outrage sparked by incidents including acid contamination from copper mines and drinking water being threatened by cadmium spills. The government has estimated it needs about 3.4 trillion yuan ($536 billion) to protect the environment in the five years through 2015.

One-Off Cases

“Cracking down on individual factories for individual cases of pollution is certainly important for China’s environmental protection effort,” Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The River Runs Black,” a book on China’s environment, said in an e-mail. “The greater remaining challenge, however, is to reform local governance to allow a robust system of environmental protection that moves beyond one-off cases to emerge.”

The government had ordered Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls and the other two companies to suspend operations after excessive lead was found in the blood levels of the children in September. It intends to conduct a review of lead-related industries and strengthen monitoring of pollutants to prevent a recurrence of the incident, according to the statement.

Tip of the Iceberg

Nine cases of lead poisoning were reported in China from January to August last year, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. This year, there have already been as many as four cases, according to Greenpeace.

“The recent lead-poisoning incidents are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the severity of heavy-metal poisoning,” said Wu Yixiu, Beijing-based toxics campaigner at Greenpeace. “China is obviously taking tougher measures to tackle heavy metal pollution, particularly of lead.”

China issued last year its first heavy metal measurement five-year plan, which aims to tackle five key industries including lead batteries. The government also released a document containing information on 1,962 lead battery makers, including volume and discharged wastewater -- the first time China has published pollution information on specific companies, according to Greenpeace’s Wu.

“The five-year plan is regarded as the toughest measures taken by the Chinese government to address heavy metal pollution,” Wu said.

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