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Gov't taken to court over pollution
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China is set to see its first lawsuit by an environmental interest group against a government department within a month, a local judge said yesterday.

A fish farmer shows a fish that died after a river in Chaohu of Anhui province was polluted last Saturday. [Bian Bo/China Daily]
A fish farmer shows a fish that died after a river in Chaohu of Anhui province was polluted last Saturday. [Bian Bo/China Daily]

On Tuesday, Qingzhen municipal people's court in Guizhou province accepted the suit by the All-China Environment Federation, an interest group under the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

The federation, on behalf of local residents, brought the Qingzhen municipal land and resources management bureau to court for failing to properly handle a construction project for nearly 15 years, said Liu Haiying, deputy head of the environmental protection tribunal of the court.

In 1994, the bureau leased land for a factory to produce beverages. But construction has not been completed and is alleged to be potentially harmful to two adjacent lakes that serve as sources of drinking water for locals, Liu told China Daily.

After receiving a number of requests from local residents, the federation decided to help sue the bureau to have it fulfill its obligations.

"We are established to safeguard public interest and hope to encourage other courts to step forward to handle similar cases," Liu said.

"No matter what the conclusion is, we hope it will serve as a warning to government departments such as environment, forestry and other agencies, that they should always fulfill their duty to protect the environment," the judge said.

"They need to gradually realize that they are not only under the supervision of the Party and other administrative departments, but also under the watch of all citizens," she said.

Ma Yong, head of the lawsuit department of the federation's environment law center, said special social organizations are expected to play an important role in helping the courts maintain the rights and interests of victims in environmental pollution cases.

"Special social organizations have advantages of manpower and funding compared to individuals," Ma said.

Courts have a long record of not accepting environmental public interest litigation, Ma said. Plaintiffs have not been able to convince courts they were directly being harmed by the pollution.

Social organizations suing polluting parties have never had their cases received by courts before this July. Nationwide, environmental public interest litigation by prosecutors has been rare.

But earlier this month, the federation successfully brought the first environmental public interest litigation against a company, in a case accepted by the Wuxi municipal intermediate people's court in Jiangsu province.

The federation had received letters and visits from more than 80 residents of Jiangyin city, complaining of a local company that produced a large amount of air and noise pollution during the transportation of its iron ore powder. The pollution also affected the Yangtze River.

Hu Jing, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Politics and Law, said the two cases are significant in that social organizations are expected to play a supervisory role by bringing government departments and enterprises to court for their harmful actions.

"The two cases indicate that local judicial departments are starting to accept social organizations as plaintiffs in environmental public interest litigations," Hu told Caijing Magazine.

(China Daily July 31, 2009)

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