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China battles pollution amid full-speed economic growth

By Miao Hong / China Features

Every two or three days on average, an "unexpected environmental incident" would take place in China, reflecting more or less the grave situation of environmental protection the country is faced with.

In the first five months of 2006, China had witnessed 68 sudden environmental incidents, which caused 16 deaths and left 233 others either poisoned or injured, according to statistics from the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).

The number of environmental incidents in the five months was 44 more than in the same period of the previous year, or an increase of 183 percent. And six of the incidents were officially labeled "particularly serious" or "extremely serious". Another 19 belonged to the "major incidents" category.

"We constantly find ourselves in troubles," said Lu Xinyuan, 56, director general of the Department of Environmental Protection Enforcement & Inspection (DEPEI) under SEPA. "In most cases, we took belated law enforcement actions only after the incidents had occurred, and we kept running from one incident scene to another like a team of 'firefighters'," said Lu.

Lu is now concurrently head of the Environmental Emergency Response & Succor Center (EERS) of SEPA, established in December 2001. Having served for more than 20 years in SEPA, Lu has fostered the habit of paying special attention to the enforcement of environmental laws.

In the past few months, Lu and his colleagues have been so busy traveling around the country to handle all kinds of environmental incidents that they could hardly enjoy any normal weekends or holidays.

"It often happened that one day we were handling a chemical leakage caused by a truck overturn in North China's Shanxi Province, and the next day we were already in the southwestern province of Guizhou to deal with a dam collapse at a local hydropower plant," said Lu.

By June 20, 2006, SEPA had received 78 pollution reports involving 25 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, and had dispatched its special task force to help the local authorities deal with 33 major accidents. Lu himself had traveled to seven provinces on assignments of emergency.

"We are strengthening law enforcement in the environmental field," Lu said. "While the number of environmental incidents has increased in the first half of this year, one comforting fact is that we have detected no cover-up of any major incidents."

"There are a host of hidden dangers threatening environmental safety," Lu said, "but the major causes are the improper layout of industrial enterprises, outdated production facilities of enterprises, industrial accidents and dangerous chemical spills caused by traffic accidents."

Of the 78 reported environmental incidents, 37 were caused by industrial accidents and 17 by traffic accidents, accounting for 47 percent and 17 percent of the total respectively.

The frequent occurrence of environmental incidents has sounded alarm for the world's largest developing country, which has been on a fast track of economic growth since it launched the reform and opening-up drive in the late 1970s.

In the 26 years from 1979 to 2005, China's GDP increased from 406.26 billion yuan (49.08 billion U.S. dollars) to 18.2321 trillion yuan (2.2 trillion U.S. dollars), with an average annual growth rate of 9.6 percent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

But recently SEPA warned that the economic losses caused by environmental pollution might account for about 10 percent of China's GDP, hinting that China's economic growth, now at a stage of accelerated industrialization and urbanization, was often achieved at the expense of the environment, with evidences of increasingly serious water-air-soil pollution that threatens people's health.

The discharge of major pollutants, especially from industrial sources, has surpassed the sustaining capacity of the environment. It is reported that more than 70 percent of China's rivers and lakes are polluted while underground water in 90 percent of Chinese cities is also affected. It is estimated that more than 300 million people nationwide have no access to clean water. Severe pollution prompted 51,000 public disputes last year, which caused a great threat to social stability.

China is now facing increasingly heavy pressure after more than two decades of fast economic development in its pursuit of modernization. The excessive exploitation of natural resources, environmental deterioration and ecological destruction, along with the continued growth of an already-1.3-billion population, are hindering the country's sustainable development.

One typical pollution incident that has taught China a bitter lesson is the major pollution of Northeast China's Songhua River in late 2005. The pollution had resulted from a blast at an upstream state-owned petrochemical plant on November 13, 2005 in Jilin City of the northeastern Jilin Province.

It was estimated that about 100 tons of harmful benzene and nitrobenzene mixed with quantities of fire-fighting-use water spilled into the river and formed an 80-km pollution slick belt flowing downstream.

As a result, Harbin, the capital city of neighboring Heilongjiang Province, was forced to cut off water supplies to its 3.8 million residents for four days. Jiamusi, the second largest downstream city with more than 2 million people, had to shut down its riverside No. 7 waterworks in an effort to protect the underground water sources.

But the worst was that the pollution slick belt in the Songhua River would finally flow into the Heilong River on the Sino-Russian border, known in Russia as the Amur River, thus threatening the water safety of the Russian border city Khabarovsk with more than 600,000 residents.

To minimize the pollution and reduce the damage to the Russian side, China had twice sent to Russia pollution-relief materials and, upon the Russian request, helped build a temporary dam to block the polluted water.

This paroxysmal incident was considered to be one of the worst of its kind since the founding of New China in 1949. Nineteen days after the incident, Xie Zhenhua, the 56-year-old director of the ministry-level SEPA, quit his post as his resignation was approved by the State Council, China's cabinet. He was replaced by Zhou Shengxian, former director of the State Forestry Administration.

"After this major water pollution incident occurred," said a joint circular from the general offices of the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State Council, "SEPA has failed to pay sufficient attention to the incident and has underestimated its possible serious impact. It should bear due responsibility for the losses caused by this incident."

Xie has become the highest-ranking official removed from office for an environmental incident, even though he had worked in environmental protection sectors for 20 years.

"Those who cause major pollution accidents through making wrong decisions or lax supervision must be severely punished," Premier Wen Jiabao said on April 17 this year at the sixth national environmental protection conference held in Beijing. "Environmental protection will become part of the assessment system of economic and social development and the performance of officials."

The Songhua River pollution incident has also become a turning point in SEPA's history of environmental law enforcement. The newly-appointed SEPA director Zhou Shengxian cited the Songhua River pollution as "a pain like cutting the flesh" and a major incident "that shocked the world". He has on many occasions called for strict law enforcement to protect environment, with emphasis on the prevention and control of industrial pollutions.

"We'll take environmental protection into account while evaluating the performance of local officials. Those who fail to meet state requirements will pay a price for their negligence of duty," said Zhou. Last year, 27 officials involved in seven pollution incidents were prosecuted and convicted.

Following the Songhua River incident, SEPA also launched a comprehensive review of chemical and petrochemical projects near major water areas. A total of 180,000 environmental law enforcement workers throughout the country were mobilized to carefully examine 49,000 major enterprises. Environmental officials inspected the potential risks of 127 key chemical and petrochemical projects under construction with a total investment of 450 billion yuan (54.37 billion U.S. dollars). These projects are located near environmentally-sensitive areas like the shores of rivers, lakes, oceans, densely-populated regions and nature reserves.

The messy scene at a chemical plant in Sheyang County, East China's Jiangsu Province after an explosion occurred on July 28, 2006 In a drill of emergency rescue and aid in case of dangerous chemical leakage, held on July 5, 2006 in Taiyuan, capital of North China's Shanxi Province, "rescuers" are conducting first aid on a "poisoned worker".

They found 20 large projects with serious environmental safety problems, including 11 along China's longest Yangtze River, one on the Yellow River and two at the Daya bay, involving the sectors of oil refining, ethylene and methanol. SEPA ordered those in charge of the projects to take immediate measures to address the problems. An additional 1.62 billion yuan (157 million U.S. dollars) has been allocated for environmental safety facilities at the 20 projects.

"Environmental law enforcement capability should be strengthened," said Lu, the SEPA department chief. "However, we are now seriously short of hands. We need some 100,000 to 150,000 law enforcement staff to better fulfill our duties."

At present, there are 3,854 environmental supervision and environmental law enforcement organs with more than 50,000 staff workers nationwide, responsible for the supervision of nearly 300,000 industrial pollution enterprises, some 700,000 other industrial enterprises and around 10,000 construction sites. They also take charge of collecting pollutants discharge fees, which total over 12 billion yuan (1.45 billion U.S. dollars) a year, and investigate and handle 60,000 cases of environmental incidents and disputes each year.

During China's 11th Five-Year Development Program period (2006-2010), environmental supervisory forces nationwide will expand to 80,000, while the equipment for environmental law enforcement will also be upgraded, SEPA sources say.

"We've been discussing a new form of penalty," Lu said. "When we have the chance to revise the law on the prevention and control of water pollution, we hope to add the new penalty clauses." According to the result of a random sampling investigation conducted by the task group of the Efficacy Research on China's Environmental Law Enforcement, the upper limit penalty for the violation of environmentally-related laws is suggested at no lower than 26,000 yuan (3,200 U.S. dollars) per day.

"It's not enough to punish enterprises causing environmental pollution accidents by depriving them of all their assets," Lu said, "It is necessary to establish a mandatory environmental insurance system for enterprises while actively exploring a system of compensating for the losses resulting from environmental pollution."

During China's Ninth Five-Year Development Plan period (1996-2000), the government closed down 84,000 small enterprises that had caused both serious waste and pollution. In 2005, more than 2,600 small enterprises in the iron and steel, cement, iron alloy, coking, papermaking, and textile printing and dyeing industries were closed down for having caused serious environmental pollution and violated industrial policies.

The 11th Five-Year Development Program requires the energy consumption per unit of GDP to decline by 20 percent compared with the end of the Tenth Five-Year Plan period. The total amount of major pollutants discharged shall be reduced by ten percent, says the program.

To handle sudden environmental pollution incidents more effectively, China will establish an advanced environmental monitoring and early-warning system, and a sound environmental law enforcement and supervision system, in an effort to enhance its early-warning capability in case of environmental emergencies, and to improve its all-round environmental supervision and management capabilities.

Recently, SEPA has decided to set up five regional supervision centers of environmental protection, which lie in the east, south, northwest, southwest and northeast with a total of 160 staff members, in an effort to get rid of the interference of the local governments while exercising its authority in environmental supervision, management and protection. Within the year of 2006, the five centers are expected to acquire the initial capability of coordination and supervision, and establish relationship with local environmental protection bureaus to form joint forces in environmental law enforcement.