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Experts say proposed environmental protection laws fail to protect

From: Global Times

Updated:2012-09-27 12:12

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Ou Guangyun clears dead fish from a fish farm he owns in Chengdu, Sichuan Province on May 22. Almost all the fish in his two ponds died from polluted water suspected to have come from factories further up the river. Photo: CFP
Ou Guangyun clears dead fish from a fish farm he owns in Chengdu, Sichuan Province on May 22. Almost all the fish in his two ponds died from polluted water suspected to have come from factories further up the river. Photo: CFP

A draft law that will help determine the future of the environment in China has been slammed by experts and environmental campaigners, with some even saying the law looks like it has been written by polluting companies.
China's top legislators are about to amend the Environmental Protection Law for the first time in two decades.
Critics say there are many important aspects missing from the law, and that it prioritizes economic development over the environment. Perhaps even more crucially, the draft law lacks measures that would allow litigation to be launched when the environmental interests of the public, rather than private individuals, are infringed upon.
Experts and environmental campaigners have been fighting to rectify these omissions before the draft closes for public consultation at the end of September.
Favoring polluters
"The draft seemed to have been written by polluting companies rather than lawmakers, which does not indicate an intention to help environmental authorities fight for their rights and interests," said Wang Jin, an environmental law professor with Peking University, adding that if the proposed law passes as it is, the environmental laws may as well be abolished.
Wang Jin, who has been a participant in legislative discussions on environmental laws, told the Global Times many of his suggestions were not reflected in the amendment. Articles that would have enhanced government responsibilities, encouraged public participation and meted out severe punishments toward polluting companies were all missing, he said, which meant the draft was "useless" and full of "bureaucratese."
The current Environmental Protection Law was established when China was undergoing its reform and opening-up period, and isn't suited toward modern requirements, said Wang Guangtao, chairman of the Environment and Resources Protection Committee under the National People's Congress (NPC), at a meeting in late August.
"There's no mention of the word 'green' or 'sustainable' in the entire draft, however, it mentioned 'development' several times, which indicates the law still prioritizes economic development over environmental protection," said Ma Yong, a director with the Department of Supervision and Litigation under the All-China Environment Federation.
According to the draft, environmental authorities should seek "balance" for their environmental protection plans from macroeconomic regulation departments before submitting it to the State Council for a final decision, ultimately meaning that economic departments rather than environmental protection provide the key input.
"This concept must be reversed, or else the environment will be sacrificed for China's economic development," said Yong Rong, head of the Policy and Public Affairs Unit with Greenpeace, an environmental NGO.
Yong also had strong words for a provision that states that environmental quality standards should be based on China's conditions.
"This is absurd. Such standards should be based on human health, not national conditions," she said. "The draft makes it sound like people in developing countries deserve less respect than those in developed countries, and should absorb more pollutants."
A different consensus
When several environmental organizations, a group of scholars and lawyers gathered in Beijing last week for a discussion on the amendment, they unanimously agreed that the changes to the draft were unsatisfying and not sufficient to meet public demands.
The draft did not include stipulations relating to public interest litigation or pollution discharge permits, they said, which will result in deteriorating protection practices.
Environmental public interest litigation measures would allow residents, institutions and social groups to file lawsuits when the public interest may be endangered by pollution. The practice is already commonly employed in other countries such as the US and Japan, but there are only a few stipulations in the civil and administrative procedural laws supporting it in China.
Some provinces such as Guizhou and Jiangsu have established environmental protection courts, and trialed regulations for public interest litigation. Environmental lawyers and NGOs, including Friends of Nature (FON), have raised suggestions and made efforts to help pollution victims, offering them legal consulting services and representing them in court.
"My suggestion is to add an article stating that all residents, legal individuals and organizations have the right to make reports to authorities on pollution and file lawsuits against polluters," said Chang Cheng, FON's deputy director.
Fees for all
Another key aspect of the draft that has been widely debated is the stipulation regarding pollution fees.
The current law requires fines to be levied if an individual or group's pollution exceeds a specified quota. However, the draft would force all polluters to pay set fees, and fines would be decided based on negotiations between the government and polluters.
"That does not address the problem. The cost to pollute is often a fraction of the profits and polluting companies will find ways to avoid fines or to pay less," Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times earlier.
According to the NPC Environment and Resources Protection Committee, the draft only includes limited modifications to the original law but one of the most important features is the stress on government responsibility.
According to the draft, environmental protection efforts will become a criterion when assessing the performance of local government officials.
But the draft did not clarify how the assessment policy will work and will not be of much practical use, said experts.
Experts also added that other parts missing from the draft include details on environmental impact assessments, which should require public participation, as well as increased supervision of projects that might pose a danger to the environment or residents.
Voices inside the government have also expressed disappointment.
While experts and organizations denounced the draft, environmental officials also see it as conservative and impractical, and suggested lawmakers consider it more carefully before making a final decision.
Environmental officials nationwide attended a meeting on September 19, where some said that the law should put more stress on the responsibilities of polluting companies, and include more details about environmental impact assessments.
There is still the chance that changes will be made to the laws, with the deadline for consultation elapsing on Sunday. Environmental campaigners are hoping increased public awareness will help ensure changes are made to the proposed laws.

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