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China Improves Enforcement of Environmental Laws

By Lin Gu, China Features

When the construction of some 30 big projects were suspended at a mandate from the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in December 2004, China was taking the most notable move in enforcing environmental laws.

Their construction was put to a halt for the projects, most of them hydro- or thermal power plants, failed to have an environmental impact assessment according to law. All would have obvious environmental consequences if no measure is taken to curb their possible hazardous impact, so an advanced assessment on their environmental impact is necessary according to law.

However, construction of these projects was launched without proper environmental assessment before hand. Hailed by media and the public as "an environmental storm," SEPA's act to halt their construction marked a departure from its old image as a rubberstamp of such wrongdoings.

"We are determination to investigate and punish any violations of environmental laws and environmental assessment is never a rubber stamp," says Pan Yue, deputy-director of SEPA.

Interestingly, the top three on the "black list" were all hydro-power plants under China's Three Gorges Project Company, which claims millions yuan of government input as key projects to alleviate the country's energy plight and hinges on the same administrative level with SEPA. So the unprecedented campaign certainly incurred great pressure on SEPA.

Yet the move won the praise from Premier Wen Jiabao, who openly applauded SEPA's campaign at a State Council conference. Also backing the move were more than 50 environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which have enthusiastically responded by co-signing a public letter to welcome the act.

Although one month later, most of the 30 halted projects resumed their construction, reportedly having passed the environmental assessment, the act that these key projects' construction was ever suspended made a history, says an official of SEPA.

SEPA alone can never guarantee the full enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, observes Prof. Wang Canfa, director of the center to help environmental victims at China University of Political Sciences and Law. In fact, according to Wang, the rate of China's environmental laws and regulations that are actually enforced is estimated to be barely 10 percent.

For instance, he notes, China's criminal law that includes clear stipulations on crimes of serious environmental accidents took effect in 1997. In the following five years the country recorded at least 50 serious environmental accidents a year based on official estimation, but to date no more than 20 people have been held accountable.

"This is what happens with the enforcement of criminal law that deals with the most serious cases of environmental accidents in the legal system, and you can imagine what happens to other environmental laws," laments Prof. Wang.

A joint investigation by SEPA and Ministry of Land and Resources in 2004 shows that 30 to 40 percent of the mining construction projects went through the procedure of environment impact assessment as required, while in some areas only 6 to 7 percent did so. This partly explains why China has witnessed so many mining accidents in recent years.

Wang and his colleagues started to offer legal assistance to the victims of environmental accidents five years ago, and the biggest obstacle remains in the "environment" to enforce law.

Last year, Wang recalls, he tried to help a local fisherman in southwestern China's Chongqing, who went bankrupt as his fish farm was poisoned by the waste water discharged into the river from a local chemical plant. The fisherman sued the chemical plant with help from Wang. But a judge from the county court told Wang matter-of-factly that a county leader had made phone calls asking favor for the chemical plant, which set the tone of verdict even before the trial. The reason was simple: the chemical plant turns is a major contributor to the local revenue.

China's central government has embraced the "scientific approach to development," which emphasizes the balance between economic development and environmental sustainability. But some local officials still prioritize GDP growth over environmental protection, partly due to the current evaluation system of political performance, says a

senior official from SEPA on condition of anonymity.

The evaluation system is being re-structured by introducing the new concept of green GDP, which would calculate the environmental and ecological cost along with the economic growth, and the achievements may be offset if the cost is too dear. SEPA and the Organizational Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which is in charge of Party officials' promotion, are studying how to incorporate environmental parameters into evaluating an official's performance, such as overall environmental quality based on public survey, quality of air and drinking water, forest coverage and so on.

While the"economy-goes-first" mentality lingers on the minds of many local officials, environmental departments are expected to be watchdogs to form some counter-balance. But this is not easy to realize in reality, as local environmental protection bureaus remain part of the local government, which controls their budget and staff, instead of reporting directly to SEPA.

"When you are opposed to a project out of environmental concerns, you have to think of the possible consequence, as your boss is certainly not in favor of your objection," says the SEPA official.

To change this situation, reforms in power structure have been started on a trial basis. For two years the provincial environmental protection administration of Shaanxi in northwestern China has required the local environmental bureaus at city and county levels to directly report to the provincial administration instead of local governments, so as to guarantee their independence to enforce environmental laws and regulations despite local administrative interventions.

Similar experiments have been carried out for the past ten years in dozens of large and medium-sized cities nationwide, such as Dalian, Ningbo and Xiamen. Further steps are being considered for SEPA, the theoretically highest body to enforce environmental laws and regulations, to set up monitoring mechanism directly at major sites of significant ecological or geographical values, lest local bureaus fail to function as they should.

An encouraging progress in China's enforcement of environmental laws lies in the greater public participation, evidenced by the emergence of environmental NGOs as among the most active players in China's growing civil society.

Domestic organizations like Friends of Nature have successfully launched high-profile environmental awareness campaigns among the general public for years, while international activist groups like Greenpeace have been whistle-blowing about grave environmental damages caused by multi-national companies in China.

On the individual level, more and more victims have resorted to law thanks to help from professionals like Prof. Wang and his colleagues. The fisherman from Chongqing remains unbeaten even though the local judge would not support him.

"I'm going to appeal my case to the highest court in Beijing if local courts fail to do me justice," he claims. "If Beijing also fails me, I'm going to bring my case to the United Nations' Environment Program!"