The public is the biggest environment group

(China Daily)
Updated: 2007-07-04 06:40

Q: The "approval suspension" mechanism is being widely enforced. Is SEPA using it as a major tool to curb pollution? Can we assume "only heavy blows work to tackle chaos"?

A: The pollution in the country has reached a critical level. The serial algae outbreaks in Taihu, Dianchi and Chaohu lakes this summer are no accidents. They are the costs we have to pay for following the blind development model. Water crisis has got the most attention because water is crucial both for humans and industrial development.

A Ministry of Health report issued on May 8 showed some benign tumors have developed into killers. Cases of malicious tumors rose from 995 in every 1 million people in 1970 to 1,480 in 2002. The death rate from lung cancer has soared five times. We cannot say for sure the diseases are the direct cause of pollution. But there is a link between contaminated air and water and the high number of incurable tumors in lungs and the alimentary system.

(The irony is) if we fail to control pollution, the pace of industrialization and urbanization will slow down, hurting the development of a harmonious society. That's why we need more effective measures or heavier blows.

One apparent puzzle is the poor result even after huge amounts of money have been spent in recent years to improve the quality of water of China's major rivers and lakes. Why the environment keeps worsening despite the country's top environmental authority's best efforts? The answer is because we've relied too much on administrative measures in the past. It proves the traditional way of using administrative power alone cannot solve all the problems. We need a comprehensive method that would incorporate administrative power, market players and the people into a cohesive force to tackle environment damage.

The Decree of Government Information Openness issued by the State Council recently and SEPA's Equivalent Environmental Information Openness should be seen as tools that ensure the public has a say in environmental supervision.

Q: The country has seen many water pollution cases in recent years. This has made the government invest heavily in pollution treatment in places along Huaihe, Haihe and Liaohe rivers and in and around Taihu, Chaohu and Dianchi lakes. But the results have not been equally impressive. How can we build an integrated environment management system in the river basins?

A: Premier Wen Jiabao told the working conference on treatment of Taihu, Chaohu and Dianchi lakes last month: "A high-level organizational and coordination mechanism should be established to treat the Taihu Lake area." This is the best way to resolve the water pollution crisis. China has invested tens of billions of yuan in the past decade to treat polluted rivers and lakes. But the pace of pollution has outpaced the pace of treatment. Moreover, some water bodies treated earlier have been polluted again. Why do we still face this dilemma after spending so much money and energy? The answer lies partly with the existing defect-ridden water bodies protection system that has a "vertical grading responsibility (system) and multi-channel management". The management system divides responsibility and duties. The system lacks an upper-lower reaches pollution compensation mechanism, too. Which makes it easier for the upper reaches to escape without meeting their targets of water resources protection, and preventing over exploitation.

In other words, it's impossible to set up an efficient water pollution prevention and management mechanism if we don't have a cross-region and cross-department water area management system already in place.

The integrated management system should unify the provinces or regions along and around entire water bodies and integrate the functions of related departments, such as environment protection water resources, urban construction, forestry and agriculture, to establish a united supervision and law enforcement mechanism. SEPA would like to join such a kind of system or group without any condition.

Q: Many cities have built sewage disposal plants, but some of them are lying idle or have only half the capacity needed because of high operation costs and poor management. Has SEPA probed this phenomenon?

A: SEPA carried out a two-month investigation in the Huaihe, Haihe, Yellow and Yangtze river valleys. Thirty-eight of the 75 sewage disposal plants surveyed in towns operate irregularly, discharge pollutants or don't run fulltime. Before that, in 2004-05, SEPA started special check-ups on sewage treatment plants across the country and detected three problems.

First, sewage disposal plants were working at a low efficiency rate. They didn't have enough sewage to treat water discharged by them was unsafe up to various degrees and some of them even discharged untreated sewage. Up to 275 of the country's 532 urban sewage disposal plants completed till then were not working normally. Forty-three of them were not running at all, 121 were operating at less than 30 percent their capacity for a long time, and the rest were discharging unsafe water on an average of 152 days a year.

Second, lack of a smooth operation and supervision system has led to lax monitoring of pollution levels.

Third, the supervision of the direct discharge of industrial sewage into urban sewerage is poor.

In order to solve the problems, we have devised four measures. We will rationalize the supervision mechanism and strengthen coordination and cooperation between government departments.

Two, we will make every effort to control the source of pollution, and ensure the planning, construction and operation of a sewage disposal plant meet the government's environmental protection requirements.

Three, we will strengthen supervision of water quality and quantity in and out of sewage disposal plants, and on the sludge and pollutants emitted by industrial units.

Four, we will continue to improve our policies. As a mandatory requirement, sewage disposal plants in key areas will be asked to remove phosphorus and nitrogen. Fees for excess ammonia-nitrogen emissions will be collected to meet the goal of controlling the cumulative volume of such substances instead of just checking the total amount of chemical oxygen demand (COD), a water pollution index.

Also, SEPA will encourage cities to industrialize sewage disposal, give a clear schedule on improving sewage disposal plants, and push forward the guiding policy for BOT (build, operate, transfer) and TOT (transform, operate, transfer) projects.

Q: You've said mass incidents caused by environment issues have become an important factor affecting social stability because green issues are already part of public interest. How do you view the mass assembly against the PX project in Haicang District of Xiamen in Fujian? How can the government guarantee the masses full rights to know, supervise and participate in major environmental matters?

A: Speaking of the environment, China has walked through the period of enlightenment and entered a new phase. The public is the biggest party that has interests in the environment. The environment is not a lofty dream or just lofty words for them. It means securing a better future for their children, their health and maintaining their property. They are the most efficient group to supervise related government departments and enterprises and ensure if they have fulfilled their duties toward the environment. (They also are) a driving force for the government's self reform.

The State Council has promulgated the Measures for the Disclosure of Information. SEPA has issued the Interim Measures for Public Participation in Environment Assessment and the Measures for the Disclosure of Environmental Information (for trial implementation). These can serve as the base for the experiments.

Also, on June 7 SEPA asked Xiamen to carry out an environmental assessment. If the results show the environment can be damaged, heavy chemical projects including the PX one will be reconsidered. We are told Xiamen has called all kinds of experts to start the first phase of preparation. SEPA, too, plans to send its experts to guide and push forward the work.

China Daily

(China Daily 07/04/2007 page12)

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