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Strict assessment of risks will help ease public worries, minister says
The rising number of "mass incidents" caused by environmental concerns will be reduced as risk assessment of projects is enhanced, a senior official said.
The government will increase transparency and public involvement in decisions regarding major projects with a potential environmental impact, Minister of Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian said at a news conference on Monday.
As China develops rapidly it is experiencing environmental problems in a relatively short space of time that more developed economies had centuries to tackle, Zhou said.
In 2012 alone, three violent protests against the construction of chemical projects near residential areas broke out in Shifang, in the southwest, and the eastern cities of Qidong and Ningbo. All the projects were eventually scrapped.
China's growth is unprecedented and in such a scenario it is natural that some problems will arise, Zhou said.
Protests were generally sparked by projects being launched without first getting approval or not going through adequate assessment as to their impact on local communities.
Zhou said that central authorities require all large projects to undergo stringent risk assessments and his ministry will make concerted efforts with other government agencies to ensure that the requirement is fully honored.
"I believe if all measures are thoroughly followed, the number of emergencies and mass incidents will be reduced," he said.
Official statistics are not immediately available, but Yang Zhaofei of the China Society of Environmental Sciences, was quoted by the Beijing News as saying on Oct 26 that the number of environmental "mass protests" has been growing by 29 percent annually in recent years.
Shan Guangnai, a researcher on "mass incidents" from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said interaction with the public is crucial for local authorities to avoid protests.
Shan has conducted studies on the standoffs between residents and authorities in Shifang, Sichuan province, and Qidong, Jiangsu province.
"More often than not, only one or two local officials decided the program would be launched and the public did not know anything about how their areas would be affected. In cases like this, a rumor or two will be enough for people to take to the streets in protest," he said.
Zhang Shiyou, a farmer in a small town beside the Yangtze River in East China's Anhui province, said: "We want the right to participate in decision-making. But it is not that easy."
In 2011, Zhang led his fellow villagers onto the streets to protest against the Anhui Zhongyuan Chemical Industrial Co plant near their village, which they said caused the deaths of fish, destruction of crops and led to unsafe drinking water. The plant was producing formaldehyde, Xinhua News Agency reported on Monday.
Eventually, the local government ordered the plant to be removed and earmarked money to clean up the environment.
"Nevertheless, we are still worried about the hidden dangers - we do not know how many other projects threatening the environment are still operating near us or are going to come to us," he told Xinhua.
"We are eager for the right to be informed."
Liu Zhibiao, president of the Jiangsu Academy of Social Sciences, said the government should encourage community representatives, NGOs and legal and environment assessment service providers to have a say in the decision process for launching projects for the sake of environmental protection.
Xu Wei contributed to this story.
(China Daily 11/13/2012 page1)