China ups tempo on pollution prosecutions

In an apparent attempt to demonstrate patience is wearing thin on pollution, China's Environmental Protection Agency has launched a series of high-profile prosecutions across the country.

Senior figures in SEPA have recently expressed frustration that while the polluter pays principle is enshrined in Chinese law, corruption and protectionism mean it is often difficult to take enforcement action.

On Friday, the watchdog announced it had begun investigations into what the state news agency Xinhua called six of the country’s ‘most notorious polluters’.

They included the Changbaishan Jingxi Chemical Company which dumped about ten cubic metres of petrol-blending chemical xylidine in a tributary of the Songhua last week, resulting in a 5km reddish-brown slick.

The offending factory has been closed and seven arrests made following the incident.

Other facilities on SEPA’s hit list include the Harbin Gasification Factory which failed to carry out a required environmental impact assessment when it was set up in 1992 and has been pumping out heavily polluted wastewater ever since.

Meanwhile Jinmao Papermaking Ltd in Langfang in north China’s Hebei Province started failed to pass an EIA as it lacked a sewage treatment facility but, in May this year, it started operations anyway despite having no permission to do so.

It is not just the private sector that has come under scrutiny either, with the county government of Xin’an in central China’s Henan Province is also under investigation, after allowing the construction of more than 100 factories with no waste-treatment facilities since 1998.

Another local authority in Jinhua in east China’s Zhejiang Province has been accused of interfering with the enforcement of environmental laws and SEPA officers are looking into the allegations.

The Yili Prefecture in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region also stands accused of discharging massive quantities of industrial pollutants.

The probe is designed to target not only polluters themselves but those within government and law enforcement who are turning a blind eye to the problems.

The probe is designed to target not only polluters themselves but those within government and law enforcement who are turning a blind eye to the problems.

While the announcement that the clamp-down will be of some encouragement to those concerned about China’s historical laissé faire attitude to environmental protection, it must be recognised that the current investigations are simply scratching the surface.

Serious pollution incidents are still an almost daily occurrence in the country and just last Friday over 100,000 residents of Yueyang City in central China were warned not to drink tap water after a routine check found it was contaminated with dangerously high levels of an arsenic-based industrial pollutant.

The problem was traced to a factory 50km upstream which had allowed waste water ponds to overflow, carrying the toxic chemicals into the river.

Arsenic trioxide, the chemical in this particular leak, causes a variety of relatively minor symptoms as well as potentially fatal convulsions and cancers of a number of internal organs.

In this case the factory responsible for the leak was shut down.

Sam Bond

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