China's top environment watchdog has fined the Jilin Petrochemical Company, a subsidiary of PetroChina, the maximum 1 million yuan (US$125,000) for seriously polluting the Songhua River.
An explosion at the company's chemical plant in northeast China's Jilin Province in November 2005 resulted in about 100 tons of waste containing benzene going into the nearby Songhua River.
The incident forced downstream cities along the river including Harbin, capital of northeastern Heilongjiang Province, to cut water supplies to 3.8 million people for several days.
Under Chinese law, companies can only be fined a maximum of 1 million yuan (US$125,000) for causing pollution.
The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) found the company guilty of contravening the Environmental Protection Law and two articles of the law on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution.
The incident triggered the resignation last year of China's former environmental chief Xie Zhenhua.
And 10 executives of PetroChina have received demerits on their personal records including Duan Wende who’s the company’s senior vice president.
SEPA has rarely applied the heaviest penalty to companies that cause pollution, Thursday's China Youth Daily reported. Some experts argued that the fine was inappropriately low considering the losses caused by the incident.
Professor Wang Jin, of Peking University, filed a lawsuit one month after the incident demanding compensation of 10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion) from the company to restore the environment.
The case was not accepted by the court but sparked discussions over who should foot the bill for cleaning up the environment. The government spent huge sums during the pollution crisis and on the actual clean-up.
It again highlighted an embarrassing situation for China's environmental protection departments which are constrained by the current legal and policy system, the newspaper said.
The Environmental Protection Law has not been changed since 1989. Many complain it’s too "soft" with fines that are too low and local environmental watchdogs have few teeth.
Some companies find it’s cheaper to pay a fine than to improve their pollution controls, the report said.
And companies can be fined only once for a particular pollution incident in a certain period. This has prompted experts to call for a system under which companies can be fined for each day they violate pollution laws.
(Xinhua News Agency January 26, 2007)