XIAOXIN, China (Reuters) - Nothing in Wu Wenyong's rural childhood hinted he would end up on a hospital bed aged 15, battling two kinds of cancer.
Born to poor farmers in Xiaoxin, a dusty village of low brick houses in southwestern Yunnan province, he paddled in the Nanpan River as a child and later helped his parents tend rice.
About 3km from Wu's home stands a three-storey high hill of chromium slag produced from the Yunnan Luliang Peace Technology Company. The runoff from chromium-6, listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organisation, seeped into the Nanpan, turning its waters yellow.
And the toxic water and earth that Wu's family blames for his condition have become a battleground over how far China will bend to letting courts punish pollution.
The chromium hill is a rallying point for a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, who have filed a public interest lawsuit for residents of Xiaoxin and nearby Xinglong in a special environment court.
Last September, Wu's face ballooned and tumour-like growths developed on his neck. He was diagnosed with thymoma, cancer of the thymus gland in the chest, and with leukaemia.
"The pollution is quite terrible. I've heard stories of cattle dying," Wu said, from his hospital bed in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. "I've seen the water in the river and it's all yellow. I've never drunk the water."
Beset by growing public alarm and protests about pollution, China's leaders have reached for a remedy they have otherwise shown little appetite for: letting the courts decide. Those courts come under the control of the ruling Communist Party, but environmental campaigners spot a welcome, if narrow opening.
In a country where non-governmental organisations have long been treated with suspicion by authorities, collective litigation by organisations with no government backing is breaking new ground in the environment courts. The groups want the privately owned company to establish a 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) compensation fund for an environmental clean-up.
"This is a significant case," said Qin Tianbao, a professor of environmental law at Wuhan University, uninvolved in the case. "In the past, lawsuits were only launched by agencies with semi-official backing. If it is possible that an organisation with absolutely no government backing can bring about a public interest litigation, then it certainly is a good thing."
The Yunnan Luliang Peace Technology Co. was established in 2003, according to its website. It makes chromium, a metal used in stainless steel, paints, plastic and dyes, and sodium dichromate, used for the tanning of leather.
Both are highly carcinogenic metals.
The company declined Reuters' request for an interview.
Polluting factories have been relocated from urban areas to the countryside, home to half of China's population. Local officials rely on these industries to generate tax revenues.
"Why was the factory built here and not Beijing and Shanghai? Because in Beijing and Shanghai, there are people watching," said Chang Shichen, 47, a villager from Xinglong.
The lawsuit had been due to go to trial in the city of Qujing last November, but was delayed until February to give advocates more time to assess the ecological damage, said Li Bo, director of Friends of Nature, one of the groups involved.
Environmental groups dispute local authorities' assertion that the water is now safe.
"There is no problem with the village's water now, although I'm not sure about the specific circumstances," Ji Honghua, an official with the Qujing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, said by telephone.
In the two villages, which are surrounded by an industrial park, residents drink either bottled water or water supplied from a small river and later filtered.
The local government gave Wenyong's father, Wu Shuliang, 1,000 yuan after he told officials about his son's plight. He borrowed 50,000 yuan for his son's chemotherapy -- and family members say there is no health insurance to reclaim the money.
"All I want is for the government to give us an answer about the pollution," said Wenyong, a tear rolling down his cheek.
His hair has fallen out from chemotherapy and he weighs 32 kg (70 pounds), almost 10 kg lighter than before his illness.
Wenyong's doctor, a woman surnamed Li, said her patient in any case needs two to three years of follow-up treatment.
Last year, the environmentalist Li learned from a media report that 5,000 tonnes of chromium-6 had been dumped outside a district of Qujing. He investigated and found 140,000 tonnes had been buried in the nearby villages of Xiaoxin and Xinglong.
"Many villagers didn't know what chromium is, they thought it was soil, so they'll dig up the chromium to pave roads. "Others will use it to build the foundation of their homes," he said. "They work barefooted in the fields. Some of their feet would start to rot and they would never understand why."
The chromium-6 levels in the water were 200 times above the permissible limits, Ma Tianjie of Greenpeace in China said after an independent investigation was conducted.
Enforcement of laws regulating the disposal of chromium is poor. Greenpeace's Ma estimates there are 1 million tonnes of chromium-6 dumped across China that still has not been disposed of, based on environment ministry data.
Virtually every resident of the villages knew of someone who contracted cancer after the industrial park was set up about seven years ago. No epidemiological studies have been conducted.
Studies have shown that exposure to chromium-6 causes leukaemia and cancer of the stomach, liver and breast.
"It is one of the worst chemicals to get in drinking water," Max Costa, chairman of the department of environmental medicine at New York University, said in emailed comments.
Wu's family needs no convincing about what is to blame.
"Our plot of farmland was just next to the chromium slag," said the elder Wu. "They even dug a drain next to our land for the runoff."
In September, the local government arrested five people for the dumping and ordered the company to halt production of chromium and sodium dichromate.
The hill is now covered by metal slabs. Guards monitor the company around the clock to ensure production has stopped and detoxification will be completed in August, Ji from the Qujing environmental bureau said.
Li recruited lawyers, academics and other NGOs to look into the feasibility of filing a lawsuit and the team named the Qujing Environmental Protection bureau as a co-plaintiff,
Two weeks after their case was accepted by the Qujing court, the central government's Civil Law Draft Amendment Office sought Li's views on amendments to draft legislation.
An official told him the government was considering letting "social organisations" bring lawsuits about pollution and food safety.
Although "social organisations" have not been defined, new laws could lead to more "public interest" litigation and allow ordinary people to join forces to defend their interests.
Li said he was "cautiously optimistic" about prospects for victory in the Qujing case -- which he said he had raised in his discussions with the government. "If this has already happened, that an environmental organisation with a status like ours could successfully file a public interest lawsuit, not including us in future interpretations of the amendments to the civil law, will be something that is unjustified," he told the official.
But without an independent judiciary, the environment courts will continue to avoid handling sensitive cases, said Zhang Jingjing, a lawyer involved in many pollution causes.
"Our circle of lawyers has a saying: in China, the big cases are about politics, the mid-sized cases are about influence and only the small cases deal with law," Zhang said.
($US1 = 6.3066 Chinese yuan)
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Royston Chan, Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)