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Cover Stories Series 2012> An Eco-Friendly Shift> Archive
UPDATED: July 30, 2012 NO. 31 AUGUST 2, 2012
No Easy Justice
Legal barriers hinder class actions in environmental courts
By Wang Hairong

REMEDY: Workers build a wall on August 14, 2011 to prevent rain from washing toxic chromium slag into the Nanpan River in southwest China's Yunnan Province. The slag has been stockpiled by Yunnan Liujiang Chemical Co. Ltd., which has been brought to court for allegedly contaminating the water supply (CHEN HAINING)

On June 21, an environmental tribunal was set up in Haikou, capital of southern island province Hainan, bringing the number of specialized environmental courts and tribunals in China to nearly 80.

The tribunal's head said the agency was set up so that environmental cases can be adjudicated more professionally.

In recent years, more and more specialized environmental courts and tribunals have been set up in the country to deal with salient environment problems.

Nonetheless, on June 5, national broadcaster CCTV's News 1+1 program revealed that most of the courts and tribunals lacked cases to judge.

Running under capacity

As an old industrial base plagued with environmental problems, Liaoning Province in the northeast was one of the first provinces to set up environmental courts and tribunals in China and it once had more such tribunals than any other province. Its first environmental tribunal was established in 1996.

Yet over the years, these courts did little more than assist environmental protection authorities to enforce their administrative decisions, and by May 2011, most environmental tribunals in the province had been shut down except for two in Shenyang, the province's capital, reported Xinhua News Agency.

Some environmental tribunals did slightly better. Since its establishment in 2008, the environmental tribunal of Wuxi City Intermediary People's Court in eastern Jiangsu Province has handled two non-litigious administrative enforcement cases and heard two civil lawsuits, including a class action suit filed by the All-China Environment Federation, a non-profit social organization supervised by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Recently, the environmental tribunal of the Intermediary People's Court of Qujing in southwestern Yunnan Province has caught media attention as the first Chinese court to accept an environment-related class action suit filed by environmental NGOs without government backing.

The case was filed in September 2011 by two environmental NGOs, Friends of Nature based in Beijing and Green Volunteer Union based in southwest China's Chongqing, against two companies that stockpiled huge amounts of toxic chromium slag close to drinking water sources and fields, causing livestock deaths and endangering local residents' health. The case was accepted by the court in October 2011.

On May 23-25, plaintiffs and defendants exchanged evidence and expressed opinions. But when the case will be heard is still unknown.

Difficult proceedings

China's economic development has taken a heavy toll on the environment.

Every year, the country sees more than 100,000 environmental disputes, yet less than 1 percent has been brought to court, according to incomplete statistics of the All-China Environment Federation.

Few individuals brought environmental disputes to court because it is difficult to prove the causal relation between environment pollution and one's health, said Yang Sujuan, Deputy Director of the Environmental and Resource Law Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law.

"Without adequate evidence, a case cannot be heard by court," she said. Of the environmental lawsuits handled by the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in Yang's university, more than 30 percent have been rejected by courts.

Yang said, "In some circumstances, pollution has not caused direct damage to individuals' health or property, yet it has already damaged the environment. In such cases, individuals have little incentive to sue given the difficulty to collect evidence and the high costs of litigation."

According to China's current Civil Procedure Law, only those directly affected by environmental damage can sue for compensation.

Before the chromium pollution case in Qujing, no class action litigation filed by NGOs had been accepted by courts, according to Chang Cheng, Deputy Director of Friends of Nature.

The Civil Procedure Law is being amended. The draft, first deliberated by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature, on October 24, 2011, added an article saying that relevant government departments and social organizations can sue against damage to public interest such as environmental pollution and infringements on consumers' legitimate rights and interests.

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