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SEPA: Environmental Law Enforcement a Constant Challenge
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Nine months have passed since Ma Ning took his office on September 3, 2006 as director for Southwest Environmental Protection Supervision Center sponsored by State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). On that day, he left Beijing for Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, where a center was established to supervise and coordinate environmental protection work in southwestern provinces. "Although penniless, I was ready to do something," Ma said when he recalled that day during an interview with Legal Daily.

Nine days later, Wang Dongqing left Beijing for Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province and took up the director post of Northwest Environmental Protection Supervision Center, also sponsored by SEPA.

Upon the arrival of two directors, a nationwide environmental protection supervision system was thrust into the public eye, with three other centers set up in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang in south, east, and northeast China respectively.

The new position has drastically changed Ma's work and rest schedules; '7-16' (working 7 days a week, 16 hours a day) may be a good term to describe his present life. Before going to Chengdu, he worked in a department directly under the SEPA in Beijing. During the past nine months, he visited 30 of 53 prefectures and cities in southwestern Chongqing Municipality, Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan provinces.

The area covers nearly 2.4 million square kilometers, accounting for about a quarter of China's total land area. It's home to 200 million people which is approximately one-sixth of the country's population.

Before his center's official launch on December 5, 2006, Ma had discovered an incident of dishonesty in a diesel oil leakage case in Luzhou in Sichuan. On November 6, the Luzhou Power Plant polluted the Yangtze River after a machine leaked diesel oil cutting off water supplies to the city.

The figure reported by local environmental protection department was 0.38 tons, but after Ma's spot investigation, a revised figure of 16.945 tons, 44 times of the previous one, was reported on November 15. Six people related to the case were punished and the plant was fined for 200,000 yuan (US$26,127). The plant's ongoing projects had been ordered to suspend.

Half a month ago, the media reported to the center that there were serious environmental violations occurring in an industrial park of Panzhihua City, Sichuan Province. Authorized by its parent body SEPA, the center sent inspectors twice to the park to investigate and verify the facts. They discovered that nearly half of the enterprises in the park were set up before getting official approval, and industrial waste water was hundreds times over-discharged.

Ma said on June 4 results of the investigation had been released and 7 people had been prosecuted.

"Are you afraid of offending others?" Ma was asked by a Legal Daily reporter. "My job is to offend some people, what am I afraid of?" Ma replied.

When Ma went to Chengdu in September of 2006, no staff, no office, not even a budget was waiting for him there. "But this was not the most difficult thing. What plagued me most was our authority and status in the law enforcement process," Ma said when asked about difficulties he had met.

Ma told Legal Daily that although the center was called 'supervision center,' what they do is 'investigate' rather than 'supervise.' "Every single case should be authorized by SEPA," Ma said, "Many times when we started to investigate, local governments would tell us there are no problems. Finally, we would have to do undercover investigations to get close to problems."

"At present there are no laws and regulations that give an explicit definition of the regional administrative body and its functions," according to Wang Canfa, a professor with China University of Political Science and Law, who was invited by SEPA to do research on the work of these supervision centers. "The only legal basis for setting up such an environmental protection center can be found in a notice on reinforcing environmental protection by the State Council on February 14, 2006," Wang said, "This low-level legislation cannot provide a sound basis for a government body's operation and law enforcement."

Restricted by its unclear status, the center's on-site investigation will only be aided by local environmental protection departments if SEPA communicates with them in advance. Without their support, it would be difficult for inspectors to get to the scene or enterprises to continue their probes.

"False report is another frustrating difficulty," Ma said, "As a saying goes 'It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.' Some local officials and enterprises are always reluctant to tell the truth when pollution happens, which will land us in a passive position and could lead to a disaster."

According to Regulations on the Reporting, Investigation and Disposition of Work Safety Accidents that took effect on June 1, 2007, once the accident happens, it should be reported to a local work safety administration within one hour. The lower level departments should report the case to its higher level body within less than two hours.

"The situation is much better now as a lot of cases could not be reached by SEPA, but the supervision centers could. At least, pollution reporting has greatly improved," according to a SEPA official, who is in charge of the management of five supervision centers.

(China.org.cn by Zhang Yunxing June 10, 2007)

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