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Cover Stories Series 2012> High Hopes for Low Carbon> In-depth
UPDATED: September 10, 2012 NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 13, 2012
Enhanced Precision
Revisions to the environmental protection law will allow greater public participation in environmental affairs
By Yuan Yuan

According to Xie, as booming industries consume massive amounts of water, soil, minerals, labor and other resources, the public has less tolerance for, and more awareness of, hazardous pollution. "When the public has inadequate channels for expressing their concerns and protecting their interests, the existing laws will not foster environmental protection," he said.

"The Environmental Protection Law, which went into effect in 1989, was created when China just started a rapid industrialization process and does not yet fit current economic and social requirements," said Wang Guangtao, Chairman of the NPC's Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee. "From 1995 to 2011, the NPC received a total of 78 motions to amend the law."

Wang said that China's existing laws do have rules requiring local governments to conduct environmental assessments before approving construction projects as well as guidelines "encouraging individuals and institutions to participate in the assessment." However, such rules lack weight due to the absence of mandatory terms for governments to disclose assessment information.

New rules

The NPC Standing Committee on August 27 started its first reading of a draft amendment to the Environmental Protection Law.

The draft stresses the government's role in environmental protection by adding a clause that calls for governments and environmental protection departments to release information concerning environmental quality, pollution-related accidents and the collection and use of pollutant discharge fees to the public, as well as allowing the public to request related information.

Individuals and organizations have the right to request environmental information from the government and its environmental protection agency at or above the county level. Such claims should be responded to within a set time limit, according to the draft amendment.

Moreover, since the discrepancies among environmental data released by different governmental departments on an overlapping subject have caused some negative effects, a national system will be established to streamline environmental monitoring and evaluation practices and ensure the consistency of the data, it said.

The draft also forbids depositing solid waste, substances containing heavy metals and other detrimental substances on farmland. It calls for caps on the total amount of major pollutants discharged. Regions that exceed pollutant discharge limits or fail to meet environmental standards will face suspensions of current development projects that could cause more pollution. Furthermore, the draft grants fiscal support for environmental management and drinking water protection in rural areas. The control system for capping discharges has already been included in the laws on the prevention and control of water contamination and air pollution, respectively.

"The draft highlights the government's responsibility and liability in environmental protection as well as the improvement of environmental management regulations, the improvement of the country's environmental quality and the enterprises' responsibility in pollution prevention and control," Wang said.

Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a member of the NPC Standing Committee, said that the government's releasing of environmental information in line with the law will ensure people's rights to know and choose.

"If people know the place they live in has serious environmental pollution, they at least have an option to move," said Rita Fan, former President of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region.

Wu Xiaoling, a member of the NPC Standing Committee and former Vice Governor of the People's Bank of China, the country's central bank, proposed that all government projects should not be approved before environmental assessments are carried out.

Wu also proposed that the amendment should adopt a current banking practice that sets environmental assessment as one of the premises for commercial banks to consider lending to enterprises or local governments.

As for enterprises, the draft requires them to cooperate with local environmental protection departments to carry out on-site investigations, such as providing accurate statistics as well as the operation and maintenance of cleaning equipment.

Cao Mingde, an environmental law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said that the proposed obligation for companies is meant to plug existing loopholes in the enforcement of environmental protection laws, as enterprises often dodge government inspections by claiming that they could expose business secrets, and some discharge pollutants during nights or weekends.

"A detailed definition of rights and obligations of governments and companies can improve law enforcement," Cao said.

Email us at: yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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