HAINA, Dominican Republic -- Johan Luciano is 13 years old and got kicked out of school in the first grade, because nothing he learned ever stayed in his head.
Environmental experts who know him say his developmental delay is the direct result of a battery recycling plant that operated in the Paraíso de Dios neighborhood of Haina for a decade, dumping battery acid and lead into the soil and into the neighborhood kids.
It's an area where his barefoot playmates play stickball, and that one New York environmental group placed third in its list of 10 most polluted spots on the planet.
The illegal battery smelter so contaminated children here that some of them have been found with what are supposed to be fatal levels of lead in their blood. But they are alive -- many of them with eye problems, seizures, severe learning deficiencies and blank stares like Johan's.
''I can't go in there,'' Johan said about the lot where the factory once stood, a steady gaze to the floor. ``There's too much lead.''
Ten years after community and media pressure forced the closure of the plant, neighborhood children are still testing positive for lead poisoning. They're still taking short cuts through the lot where piles of old batteries are buried and lead is washed down a hill into people's homes every time it rains.
Environmentalists say the case is an extreme example of government inertia, and of how sometimes community pressure, outside experts and even available funding cannot compete against a lack of will.
''You're dealing with some of the most incompetent people in the world,'' Stephen Null, the New York anti-lead activist who first discovered the town's problems more than 10 years ago, said of the various government functionaries who were supposed to help. ``And a lot of them are corrupt.''
Johan lives in Paraíso de Dios -- God's Paradise -- a low-income section of Haina, 12 miles west of Santo Domingo. The Blacksmith Institute, an organization that helps developing countries resolve pollution problems, last fall lumped it with Chernobyl and a place called Maiuu Suu, Kyrgyzstan, which is suffering from gamma radiation.
Blacksmith experts were back in Haina last week with the same goal they began with 10 years ago: cleaning up a place so contaminated some scientists say it would be better to move the 80,000 neighbors someplace else.
''The contamination is unbelievably high,'' said Jack Caravanos, a Hunter College environmental science professor who collected soil samples for Blacksmith. ``You could practically mine for lead there.''
Haina's story began in the mid 1990s when Null, director of New York-based Friends of Lead-Free Children, was in Santo Domingo giving a lecture, trying to get the government there to stop using leaded gasoline. Null was approached by someone in the audience and told about a company called Metaloxa that was recycling batteries and contaminating kids.
Null visited and found a lot with 30-foot high piles of batteries. The smelter sat atop a hill surrounded by homes and operated around the clock. The entire neighborhood was filled with lead fumes.
First, Null had the employees tested for lead.
''Anything above 70, 80 or 90 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is serious and results in swelling of the brain,'' Null said. ``These guys were at 300. I am sure they were going to die.''
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, a lead blood level above 10 is too high. Higher than that, the lead starts to change the brain's chemistry, leading to neurological problems like a low IQ. Other problems include problems with vision, seizures and hyperactivity.