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SEPA's Work Needs Teeth
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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 known.

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 environmental consequences.

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 necessary solutions.

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 bite.

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)

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