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Environmental Protection Important for Economic Growth
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There's been an environmental accident in China every other day since the disastrous chemical spill in the Songhua River last November, the country's environmental watchdog said.


"If environmental protection efforts continue to lag behind economic growth, pollution will become even more rampant," said Zhou Shengxian, head of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), on Tuesday, following a two-day national conference on environmental protection.


According to Zhou, eight of the 76 environmental accidents that occurred since November last year were serious, such as the spill of cadmium in the Beijiang River in south China's Guangdong province, which threatened local drinking and agricultural water supplies.


Zhou also lambasted the lack of environmental controls in the country, saying that the 510,000 disputes over environmental pollution last year "caused a great threat to social stability."


Mass protests over environmental pollution have been on the rise in recent years, increasing at a rate of almost 30 percent year, Zhou said, citing the example of villagers in Huashui Town of Dongyang City, east China's Zhejiang Province, who gathered last April outside an industrial park to protest against the polluting chemical plant operating inside the park.


Several officials including the mayor of Dongyang City were later fired for not paying enough attention to the environment law.


In 2005, 97.1 percent of all environmental mishaps involved the release of pollution. Water contamination made up 50.6 percent of the accidents. Almost 40 percent of environmental accidents involved air pollution. All the accidents caused up to 105 million yuan (US$13.125 million) in direct economic losses.


Last November, a chemical plant blast in northeastern Jilin province released 100 tons of toxic benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River, compelling officials to cut off water supplies to millions of people downstream. It was one of China's biggest environmental accidents since the founding of new China in 1949. SEPA's director, Xie Zhenhua, resigned after the Songhua River spill.


Last year, 27 officials involved in seven pollution incidents were prosecuted and convicted.


"We'll take into account the handling of environmental issues in the evaluation of local officials. Those who fail to meet requirements will pay a price for turning a blind eye to the law,"Zhou Shengxian said.


Zhou's words echoed Premier Wen Jiabao's pledge made at a national conference on environmental protection held in Beijing from April 17 to 18, which coincided with severe sand storms that enveloped the capital.


"Environmental protection will be used to assess an official's performance," Wen said, "We cannot sit still and discuss environmental issues behind the closed doors while the sand storms rage outside."


Wen underscored that China should make a historic transition from pursuit of purely economic-oriented development to one that is much more environmental friendly. He ordered local governments to release information every six months on energy consumption and pollution emissions and implement plans to control emissions and improve environmental assessments of construction projects.


(Xinhua News Agency April 20, 2006)

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