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Environment issues addressed more urgently

By Li Fangchao (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-05-04 06:36
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China's top environment watchdog vowed recently to tackle the serious environmental problems that may trigger mass protests over pollution.

Mass protests of such kind have been on the rise in recent years, increasing at a rate of almost 30 per cent a year, and they often occurred in economically developed regions, said Zhou Shengxian, head of the State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA) in a recent meeting with local environment protection officials nationwide.

The official cited an example of villagers from Huashui Town of Dongyang City, in East China's Zhejiang Province, who gathered last April outside an industrial park to protest against the chemical plant operating inside the park that was polluting.

More than 50,000 disputes over environmental pollution occurred last year. According to Zhou, 97.1 per cent of all environmental mishaps involved the release of pollution. Water contamination made up 50.6 per cent of the total accidents. Almost 40 per cent of environmental accidents involved air pollution. The accidents collectively caused up to 105 million yuan (US$13.1 million) in direct economic losses.

"This environmental problem has become one of the main factors that affect national safety and social stability," said Pan Yue, deputy director of the SEPA.

"If current economic development, production and consumption remains unchanged, the faster our economy develops, the more problems we might have to face, such as these kinds of group emergencies," Pan said.

Zhang Lijun, another deputy director of the SEPA, said: "With people's rising demand for a better environment, China has started having high rates of environmental disputes and even mass protests."

The SEPA had an annual increase of 30 per cent of environmental complaints, with more than 90 per cent requiring SEPA's help to get rid of the problems, Zhang said.

And Zhang called for a more timely and effective response to people's complaints to prevent them from escalating into mass protests.

Wang Guoping, director of the Environment Protection Bureau of Central China's Henan Province, said in the city he required his subordinates to arrive at the affected area within 2 hours after receiving a tip-off about a particular environmental problem. The time limit extends to 6 hours if the place is in the counties.

"Most people are satisfied with the measures we take," he said.

Li Hengyuan, vice secretary-general of the All-China Environment Federation (ACEF), a non-government organization, said they are providing legal aid for some environment lawsuits with the hope of reducing the number of mass protests triggered by environmental problems.

A legal service centre under the ACEF has taken on 23 environment lawsuits, covering more than 3,000 people since it was set up a year ago.

Li revealed that they were assisting local residents in Zibo, Shandong Province, to launch a lawsuit to seek compensation from Tieying Steel Company, which allegedly heavily polluted its surrounding area.

And while addressing local environment officials nationwide on legal enforcement in environmental protection work during the conference, for the first time, Zhang Lijun noted there might be "corruption" behind the violation of environment laws in some regions.

Zhang said that some local officials are sheltering local companies, which discharge heavy pollutants, because they have shares in them.

"We have heard many complaints saying: no clean official, no clean water," Zhang said.

In the middle of last month, Chen Changzhi, vice-minister of the Ministry of Supervision, said they would join hands with SEPA to crack down on corruption that may be behind the ineffective closure of companies that discharge heavy pollutants.

(China Daily 05/04/2006 page2)