QIAN'AN, CHINA: Day and night, huge chimneys belch out thick smoke into the often-grey skies on the outskirts of Qian’an city, about 220 kilometres southeast of Beijing.
Steel mills around the area have been identified by the government as among the major emitters of air pollutants in northern China.
Songting village lies at the heart of the area. It is dubbed "the source of Beijing's smog” by some local media and residents have also complained about yellowish ground water.
The seemingly dull village is also closely guarded, tucked between steel mills Jiujiang Wire and Hebei Shougang Qian’an Iron and Steel, as well as a coal chemical plant.
According to Chinese media reports, the pollution is so bad that many villagers have died from cancer and other illnesses.
On Channel NewsAsia's first visit to the village, we were tailed by a white car so we did not stop until we had left the area. But we went back again in the afternoon.
During our short visit, the village looked abandoned with many houses overgrown with weed and we did not see any residents. When we exited the village, we were blocked by a car whose driver got out to take pictures of our vehicle.
And when we tried to leave Qian'an, there were cars tailing us for almost an hour. It was clear someone did not want the story to be told.
Dong Liansai, a climate and energy campaigner from Greenpeace, said: “This shows that they lack the awareness, and also, the fines for violating emission targets could be too low. So it’s not enough to deter them from polluting the environment and they feel that by spending some resources to chase away people who go there to investigate, it’ll be okay."
Channel NewsAsia did not get to speak to any villagers in Songting, but residents in the nearby village of Ma'ke showed us the sediments that were left behind after their well water was given time to settle. They also said that no matter how many times they cleaned their house, it was always covered in a layer of dust.
One of them, Madam Wang, said: “The air pollution is not good for the lungs and we don’t dare to ... drink the water. If we have the economic means to move away, of course we want to.”
Residents in a village in Qian'an say their well water has been affected by the smog. (Photo: Jeremy Koh)
Other residents echoed her sentiments.
One who did not want to be named said: “Of course we’re worried about our health. Many here have died from illnesses in their 50s. It’s not easy to diagnose. There have been brain hemorrhages and several have died from heart attacks.”
Another said: “I’m worried, but what can I do? No one cares. I want to leave, but if I leave, how can I survive? If I stay on, at least I can work and survive.”
More than three decades of breakneck economic growth has put a strain on China’s air, soil and water. In recent years, China has made fighting pollution a top priority, but that determination seems to have been weakened recently by the need to support growth as the Communist Party gets ready for a once-every-five-years congress later this year.
Just as the government declared stabilising economic growth last year, severe and prolonged smog returned.
Mr Dong from Greenpeace said: “We see that there are supervision mechanisms, but why are such mechanisms unable to effect a positive change?
"Firstly, can such mechanisms give companies a signal, a warning to show them that things are not how they were a few years ago, and that you will be punished if you don’t do a good job in protecting the environment? And also, are such mechanisms insufficient?”
A resident of a village in Qian'an showing the layer of smoke on his windowsill. (Photo: Jeremy Koh)
He added: "Many people still think they can get away with pollution. In other words, they'll think that there aren't many cats to catch the rats and everyone's a rat, so maybe they won't be caught."
For residents living at ground zero of China’s fight against pollution, the future is truly foggy.