Chinese watchdog calls for new powers to protect the environment

China's State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has publicly urged the Government to amend outdated legislation to stem the rapid deterioration of conditions across the vast country.

The existing Environmental Protection Law was brought in in 1989 and predates China’s dramatic economic growth, and the wave of pollution incidents that has come with it, and current political structures are tying the agency’s hands, it claims.

SEPA has carried out an investigation looking at how effective, or ineffective, the law has been in 20 cities and regions and concluded that the vast majority of people do not believe the Government is being sufficiently held to account when it comes to environmental protection and a staggering 95% believe Government officials, as well as industry, should be held accountable for pollution incidents.

The agency’s proposed amendment says there is a need for greater independence for environmental watchdogs if they are to carry out their job effectively.

Under the current law local environmental protection departments answer to both local government and SEPA.

But, according to SEPA, the former have real power over the appointment of officials and manage the finance of such departments and this has led to a conflict of interests, as environmental officers are unlikely to be too critical of their paymasters.

In North China’s Shanxi Province, only 65 of 680 enterprises producing coke have permission from the local environmental protection watchdog and only 5 per cent of all these firms reach the State’s required standard for discharge of sulphur dioxide. When these firms were allowed to operate by local governments, environmental watchdogs could do nothing about it.

Chinese legislation does embrace the polluter pays principle and says that leaders of enterprises that have violated environmental rules in discharging pollutants should be punished.

But in reality these penalties are rarely enforced due to local protectionism.

“Even if the SEPA’s new efforts could get somewhere, they would hardly make any substantial progress because the administrative penalties and ceiling for fines stipulated in the current law are not severe enough,” said a spokesman for the agency.

“Such bites without teeth have created an embarrassing situation, in which those firms that abide by rules and treat their pollutants before discharging them have spent much money on building and maintaining treatment facilities, while those that defy the rules benefit from sparing the expense.

“This is one of the major reasons behind the ever-worsening environmental pollution nationwide.”

Sam Bond

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