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First public interest lawsuit on air quality in China

First public interest lawsuit on air quality in China

On March 25th 2015, the All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF) has requested a 30 million RMB (US$4.8 million) fine against an industrial polluter in Shandong province. It is the country’s first environmental lawsuit under a new law that came into effect on January 1st.

The case arose after Zhenhua Co., a glass production company, neglected warnings by environmental watchdogs that they were emitting excess sulfur and dust. The company was placed on a blacklist by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in October 2014 after failing to reduce the emission. However, neither fines by the local environmental watchdog nor the blacklist warning by the ministry pushed the polluter to take effective measures toward pollution control.

The All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF), which brought the lawsuit, is a nonprofit national social organization. It contributes to the protection of environment in China and this case is the country’s first environmental lawsuit under the new law that took effect.

Overcome major difficulties of quality control regulation in China

Calculation of environmental damages

In February 2014, a resident of Shijiazhuang, one of China’s most polluted cities, tried to sue the environmental authorities. However, he was unable to identify a particular company responsible for toxic air quality and the court did not accept it. According to Ma Yong, deputy head of ACEF’s Environmental Legal Services Center, judicial interpretation of the new public interest litigation law, which came into effect in January, provides guidance on cases where damages are hard to assess. However, with the assist of the new law interpretation, when the environmental damages cannot be calculated, damages can be assessed in line with the company’s operating costs.

Cost of litigation

Including All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF), many environmental protection organizations face financial challenges. Thus, it is hard for them to put money into public interest litigation. An environmental public interest litigation case, including evidence obtain, damage identification, expert consultation, litigation expenses, costs hundreds of thousands to millions RMB. Without financial support, doing public interest lawsuit is really a difficulty. In addition, some environmental groups have links to local governments, so whether they can resist pressure from governments or not are not apparent.

Future influence

It is the first case since amendments to the Environmental Protection Law were enacted by China’s national legislature in April. ACEF’s case against Zhenhua Co. may provide a model for public interest cases filed in response to air pollution. Big industrial polluters are often protected by the local government, which makes pollution control difficult. Thus, it is much easier for environmental NGOs to file lawsuits against polluters for public interests. We can predict that non-governmental organizations will play a bigger role in representing public interests for environmental cases in the future.

From 2009 to 2014, there are only 9 lawsuits filed by non-governmental environmental protection organization in China, however, from the passing 3 months in 2015, 4 lawsuits have already been filed. So it is predictable that although the way is still long to go, China is making progress on it.