'Unexpected' pollution comes as no shock

(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-10-16 09:40

An "unexpected environmental accident" occurred in China roughly every other day in the first half of this year, a situation the government is all too aware of.

The head of the department charged with enforcing environmental law and inspecting the accident sites says the only way the job can be done any better is with more trained personnel.

Statistics from the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) are incomplete, but show that China witnessed 86 sudden environmental accidents in the first half year, causing 16 deaths and leaving 233 either poisoned or injured.

Of the 86, exactly half were industrial accidents, and 19 caused by traffic accidents.

By comparison only 30 environmental accidents were reported last year.

Six of this year's accidents were officially labelled "particularly serious" or "extremely serious." Twenty-six others belonged to the "major accidents" category.

"There are a host of hidden dangers threatening environmental safety," said Lu Xinyuan, 56, director of the Department of Environmental Protection Enforcement & Inspection (DEPEI) under SEPA.

"We constantly find ourselves in trouble. In most cases, we take law enforcement action only after the accidents have occurred. We keep running from one accident scene to another like a team of firefighters."

The 86 accidents in the first half of the year came from 22 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. SEPA's special task force was sent to help local officials handle 33 major accidents. Lu himself travelled to seven provinces.

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

Although China's economy since 1979's reform and opening-up has grown by an average of 9.6 per cent per year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), SEPA has news to mute the celebration.

It says that economic losses caused by environmental pollution might account for about 10 per cent of China's gross domestic product, hinting that growth is often achieved at the expense of the environment. What's more, increasingly serious water-air-soil pollution has been threatening people's health.

SEPA's pollution numbers are sobering:

More than 70 per cent of China's rivers and lakes are polluted.

More than 300 million people have no access to clean water.

Severe pollution prompted 51,000 public disputes last year, which threatened social stability.

The "sustainable development" announced by the government cannot be achieved if natural resources continue to be depleted at the current rate and the environment suffers further destruction.

Perhaps the most egregious example of damage to the environment occurred last year when a blast at a State-owned petrochemical plant on November 13 in Jilin city of Jilin Province spewed about 100 tons of benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River.

As a result, Harbin, the capital of neighbouring Heilongjiang Province, had to cut off water supplies to its 3.8 million residents for four days.

An 80-kilometre toxic slick drifted downstream, affecting the water of millions of people until, weeks later, it crossed the border into Russia.

A joint circular from the general offices of the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party of China and the State Council blamed SEPA, and Director Xie Zhenhua resigned his post 19 days after the explosion.

Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking on April 17 at the sixth National Environmental Protection Conference in Beijing, said environmental protection would become part of the assessment system in the performance of officials.

To date, 27 officials involved in seven pollution incidents have been punished.

The Songhua River incident has become a turning point in SEPA's history of environmental law enforcement. Under newly-appointed Director Zhou Shengxian, SEPA launched a comprehensive review of chemical and petrochemical projects near major water areas.

They found 20 large projects with serious environmental safety problems, including 11 along the Yangtze River, one on the Yellow River and two at Daya Bay.

The corrections SEPA ordered at the 20 sites will cost 1.6 billion yuan (US$200 million).

"Environmental law enforcement capability should be strengthened," said Lu, the SEPA department chief.

"However, we are seriously understaffed. We need about 100,000 to 150,000 law enforcement staff to better fulfil our duties."

At present, 3,854 environmental supervision and environmental law enforcement organs with more than 50,000 workers nationwide are responsible for supervising nearly 300,000 industrial polluters and about 700,000 other industrial enterprises.

They also take charge of collecting pollutant discharge fees, which total more than 12 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) a year, and handle 60,000 cases of environmental incidents and disputes each year.

By the end of 2010, the environmental supervisory force nationwide is slated to expand to 80,000, and equipment for environmental law enforcement will also be upgraded.