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Comment: polluters shouldn't be the judge of other polluters

The government-backed NGO All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF) shouldn't be given a monopoly over legal action against polluters, argues chinadialogue's Beijing editor Liu Jianqiang

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Liu Jianqiang is the Beijing editor of chinadialogue (Image by chinadialogue)

If the law sets a criminal to catch other criminals what do you think those criminals will think? My colleagues have discovered that new legisation threatens to do just that.
 
A new draft revision of the Environmental Protection Law is now online for public comment. The draft names the All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF) and its provincial-level branches as the only bodies entitled to bring environmental public litigation. In other words, ACEF alone can bring lawsuits when the environment suffers damage. 
 
But ACEF has many corporate members with dubious environmental records – can it truly represent the public interest?
 
During media interivews Zeng Xiaodong, ACEF Secretary General, has tried to reassure the public: “actually there aren’t any problems, you can check online, say what you want… but if you think we have polluters as members, name them and where and how they pollute. We absolutely do not accept polluting companies as members.”
 
This inspired my colleagues to cross-reference the ACEF membership list with both the Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs’ pollution database and news reports, creating a record of the environmental performance of ACEF members. Shockingly, we found 80 cases of pollution by corporate members of ACEF. And that is not a complete list – subsidiaries of some corporate members have multiple records of pollution, and we have only listed those in recent years. 
 
Nine Dragons Paper has a deputy chair membership of the ACEF. In September 2012 the company was found to have been secretly dumping waste water from a paper mill at Taicang, near Suzhou, into the Yangtze, in order to avoid environmental monitoring. Local fishermen sued for ten years losses to earnings, and the pollution also affected drinking water supplies for cities downstream, including Shanghai. 
 
In 2011, Nine Dragons Paper was listed as a major source of pollution by Guangdong. In March 2010, according to the Guangzhou Daily, the company’s Donghuang subsidiary was one of the area’s major polluters. 
 
In 2010, residents in the Tianjin county of Ninghe complained to the local environmental protection bureau about pollution from a Nine Dragons paper mill. The bureau ordered improvements to be made. But in 2012 the locals were still reporting heavy pollution. 
 
Other ACEF members found to be polluters include the China National Petroleum Company, Sinopec, Zijin Mining, and the China National Offshore Oil Company. A glance at the ACEF membership finds many polluters under its wing. If ACEF is granted a monopoly on public litigation these fee-paying polluters will rest easy. 
 
And if ACEF takes action against companies which are not members, we have a situation where large polluting companies are, via their ACEF membership, suing smaller non-members. Those smaller companies are unlikely to be impressed.
 
ACEF is an environmental-protection organisation, and we have no wish to be overly critical. Despite its official background, it is not necessarily able to influence legislation. But we strongly call for legislators to revise this article to give all citizens and civil groups the right to protect the environment.

Public bodies and environmental awareness are both developing rapidly, and handing out a monopoly on environmental public litigation is out of touch with the spirit of both the times and the law; places ACEF in the difficult position of being the target of public anger; brings the law into disrepute; and most importantly does nothing to help the environment - in fact, it will result in more pollution. 

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