The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) did not
surprise us yesterday when it warned of "serious environmental
risks" at major chemical projects along our main rivers.
Twelve out of the 20 facilities it surveyed were labeled "high
risk." That is a serious problem.
Still, such findings only corroborate what is commonly
It may be worth mentioning that all of the 20 plants the SEPA
has examined are large infrastructures financed solely, or mostly,
by the state. In spite of inadequate attention to potential
environmental risks in their planning and construction, most of
them have decent financial resources to address undesirable
We can guarantee a more worrying picture if the smaller chemical
facilities dotting our waterways are taken into account. From
cities to remote rural communities, there are numerous smaller
plants polluting our water system on a daily basis.
No, we are not blaming the SEPA. Our national environmental
watchdog deserves a pat on the back for what it has done over the
years. The growing environmental awareness in present-day China has
much to do with its recent aggressiveness and tenacity.
Take a look at the report it released yesterday and you will not
mistake SEPA officials for mere slogan shouters. For each project
surveyed, they pointed out the problems, and prescribed the
Such remedies, when executed down to the letter, may greatly
lower the anticipated risks. But after all, they are a choice when
there is no alternative.
SEPA Vice-Minister Pan Yue was right in saying that only
environmental appraisal in the planning stage can effectively
prevent us from environmental risks. That is cost-efficient because
it gets to the root of the problem.
The Law on Environmental Impact Assessment came into effect on
September 1, 2003. That a lot of projects of potential risk to the
environment have continued to appear shows it needs teeth to
The law took a significant step forward in making
pre-construction environmental assessment a legal obligation. But
it needs to be specific to ensure deterrence.
The SEPA's chronic sense of powerlessness in its struggle with
polluters has its roots in the law's impotence.
It is a great comfort to us that the SEPA is not giving up. In
the first three months of 2006 alone, it has suspended 44 major
construction projects based on environmental reasons.
But nationwide, the number of projects subject to SEPA approval
is rather limited. Many more, usually smaller in scale and in less
environmentally sensitive areas, are up to local environmental
protection authorities, who are more vulnerable to meddling local
leaders who place profits before ecological wellbeing.
It will be sad if the SEPA and its local branches are bogged
down in protracted in-fighting with government departments which
have no respect for the law and environmental integrity.
(China Daily April 6, 2006)