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Local officials to pay price of environmental failures
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China's environment watchdog has warned local government leaders that they face penalties over failures to clean up the country's major rivers and lakes.

The Ministry of Environment Protection on Wednesday put the leaders of 21 provincial-level governments on notice that they would be held personally accountable for the continued pollution of seven main waterways.

The ministry announced the measure at a national meeting on water pollution prevention in east China's Jinan, which was attended by officials from the National Development and Reform Commission and the ministries of supervision, finance, housing and urban-rural development.

Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian told the meeting that the new measure would take effect early next year, although he did not reveal what penalties would be handed out.

The 21 governments had given the ministry annual targets in their plans for pollution prevention in the basins of the Huaihe, Haihe, Liaohe, Songhua rivers, the middle and upper streams of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers as well Chaohu and Dianchi lakes.

The plans were based on a five-year national guideline (2006-2010) to protect the water resources.

Zhou said the ministry would hold specific officials responsible for any failures to meet the targets, but he did not say which provinces missed their goals for the past two years.

"Through the evaluation system, the ministry will reinforce its supervision of local government implementation of the state's environmental protection objectives," said Zhang Bo, deputy director of Shandong Provincial Bureau of Environmental Protection, after the meeting.

He said the ministry also required the local governments to publish their annual goals on pollution control for public scrutiny.

The Chinese government has set a target of reducing major water pollutant emissions by 10 percent from 2005 levels by 2010.

Zhou told the meeting that emissions had fallen by only 2.3 percent for the past two years, meaning more reductions totaling 7.7 percent were required in less than three years.

He said local environmental watchdogs nationwide reported water pollution cases every other day, and the number had increased by 30 percent in the first half year from the same period of last year. He did not give the number of cases for either six-month period.

He reiterated that the reduction in pollution discharges to water bodies was the fundamental to improving the environment.

The ministry was established on March 27 from its predecessor, the State Environmental Protection Administration. It completed an expansion in August, which was reported to be aimed at reinforcing its role in the prevention and control of water pollution.

In August, the ministry submitted a proposal to the National People's Congress, China's top law-making body, seeking powers to detain for up to 15 days people responsible for illegally discharging dangerous chemicals into water and those responsible for discharges of poisonous, radioactive and erosive substances, or pathogens or illegally disposing of dangerous substances should be held responsible.

The proposal did not specify penalties, but said they should be determined according to the severity of the incident.

According to the Chinese law, only police authorities above county level have the power to exercise administrative detention, which is different from criminal arrest and lasts from one to 15 days. The punishment also applies to leaders found guilty of dereliction of duty.

Staff and senior officials environmental agencies that fail to transfer those suspected of water pollution could face warnings, demerits, demotions, or dismissal, according to the proposal.

Zhou said on Sept. 1 that 1.6 million cases of water pollution had been reported through a government hotline since the beginning of 2003.

(Xinhua News Agency September 17, 2008)

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