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By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — China’s lawmakers approved sweeping new environmental protections this week amid mounting concerns over pollution poisoning the nation’s air, water and soil.

The amendments, approved Thursday by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, are the first revisions to China’s environmental protection law since it took effect in 1989, Chinese state media reported Friday.

Environmentalists inside and outside the world’s largest country are hopeful that the amendments will result in tougher fines against polluters, taking away the incentive many industries have to pay meager penalties instead of investing in cleaner technology.

“These amendments are a game changer,” Barbara Finamore, Asia program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote on the council’s Switchboard blog. She said the amendments “put powerful new tools into the hands of environmental officials and the public, providing a strong legal foundation to the ‘war on pollution’ declared last month by Premier Li Keqiang.”

Taking effect next Jan. 1, the new law eliminates China’s cap on environmental fines. The Xinhua news agency reported one example cited by lawmaker Xin Chunying on Thursday. Xin said a company currently faced a fine of only 10,000 yuan ($1,600) for ignoring the requirement to use an approved power generator that would cost 500,000 yuan, or $80,000. Under the new law, that would change.

The new law also modifies the evaluation system for government officials, ensuring that environmental protection is considered along with performance in meeting economic growth targets. It also would give nongovernmental organizations more ability to take legal action against polluters.

This last change could prove particularly significant, since citizens have been repeatedly blocked in using the courts to address damage caused by factories and power plants.

On April 11, the water supply for more than 2.4 million people in the city of Lanzhou, in northwest China’s Gansu province, was found to be contaminated with benzene, a chemical linked to cancer. When five citizens sued the local water company, accusing it of a cover-up, a court quickly dismissed the case. According to state media, the court ruled that “only agencies and organizations that are stipulated by the law” are allowed to file pollution-related lawsuits.

Hardly a day passes in China without the revelation of another large, looming environmental problem. Last week, the environmental ministry reported the results of a soil survey conducted from 2005 to 2013. It found that heavy metals and other pollutants contaminated 16.1 percent of China’s soil and nearly one-fifth of its arable land.

On Friday in Beijing, reports surfaced that batches of rice grown in Hunan province were contaminated with cadmium.

Air pollution continues to smother vast stretches of the country, particularly in the east and north. Already this year, Beijing has had six days when the air quality index — a measure of contaminants — topped 500, a level the U.S. Embassy once described in a tweet as “crazy bad.” In 2012, there were 12 such days. In 2008, there was only one.

Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned that deteriorating environmental conditions will stir social unrest and pose a threat to Communist Party rule. Earlier this month, hundreds of protesters clashed with police while demonstrating against a proposed petrochemical plant in the southern China city of Maoming, in Guangdong province.

While environmentalists are hopeful that the new laws will give them tools for reducing the pollution burden, even Chinese state media are cautioning against expecting too much.

“Though approval of the environmental law revisions is enough reason to rejoice, it would be simple-minded to believe that the new law will automatically solve all troubles overnight,” Xinhua said in a commentary Friday. “China’s ecological problems are the result of decades of reckless pollution.”

Photo: akasped via Flickr


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