Who guards the green guards?
21 February 2013
By Wu Wenchong and Jiang Xueqing
The system tasked with safeguarding and assessing the possible
environmental damage caused by infrastructure and construction projects
is outmoded and badly in need of reform, as Wu Wenchong and Jiang
Xueqing report from Beijing.
'Smog" and "haze" have become buzzwords this winter after severe air
pollution choked China for several weeks. Equally severe are the
country's polluted surface water, ground water and farmland soil. In the
face of the worsening levels of pollution, experts have blamed the
problem on the disorderly discharge of all kinds of fumes and waterborne
waste. They come from factory processes and emissions as well as auto
exhausts, during China's 20-plus years of rapid industrial development.
The laws and regulations, which date to the 1970s, were designed to
tackle much lower levels of environmental pollution, and now insiders
say that only the Environmental Impact Assessment system - tasked with
assessing the potential environmental risk posed by any given project
before construction begins - has the ability to be the first line of
defense against pollution.
However, many experts believe that the system, instigated with the
intention of preventing pollution before it can occur, no longer serves
the purpose for which it was established, because the pass rate of
projects under assessment is almost 100 percent.
Experts said the key problems are that the EIA agencies are paid by
project owners, who only care about getting their projects passed, and
that the evaluations only begin after the type and scale of a project
have been formulated by other government departments.
They have suggested a number of ways the system can be reformed: Ironing
out the legal flaws related to the collection of public opinion;
ensuring that the EIA agencies are entirely independent of the
departments that supervise their reports; and placing greater emphasis
on the assessment of regional development plans, rather than on
In January, 88 EIA-qualified agencies were publicly admonished by the
Ministry of Environmental Protection. They accounted for 18 percent of
the 500 agencies whose activities were examined by the ministry between
June and October last year.
Two agencies had their EIA qualification canceled and a further eight
saw the range of their qualification reduced. The other 78 were ordered
to rectify and improve their performances within a specified period.
The investigation uncovered a number of problems, including the poor
overall quality of both agency personnel and the assessment documents
they produced. More worryingly, some agencies were discovered to have
included inaccurate data in their assessments.
The ministry's move was seen as a signal of the government's
determination to purge the chaos within the EIA system. Nationwide,
there are approximately 1,170 agencies; 190 of them are classified as
Grade A, while the others are Grade B.
An agency's grade is determined by the number of EIA engineers it
employs: Grade A agencies write assessment reports on projects that can
only be approved by the ministry itself, and Grade B agencies write
reports about much smaller projects, those approved by environmental
departments at provincial level, said Wang Shoubing, an EIA engineer at
Fudan University in Shanghai.
The Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences was one of the eight
agencies the ministry downgraded from Grade A to Grade B. Its demotion
attracted high-profile media attention in January after a group of
environmental NGOs sent an open letter to the ministry and the media.
The letter claimed that the academy had used forged data during the EIA
process for a waste-incineration power generation project in
Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, and requested that its EIA qualification be
The report, completed in March 2009, claimed that 100 copies of a
questionnaire had been handed out to villagers living close to the
project, and that 99 of the respondents supported construction of the
However, many villagers balked at the report. Pan Zhizhong, a resident
of Panguanying village, one of the four covered by the process, said
that in the wake of the consultation process, the villagers discovered
that of the 99 people who supposedly supported the project, 15 did not
exist, one had died before the questionnaire was issued, 14 had moved
away many years before, and one hadn't been seen for eight years after
he disappeared while facing criminal charges. A further 65 claimed they
had never been given the questionnaire and therefore couldn't have
signed it, nor did they support the project.
Although the academy had been downgraded by the ministry, the demotion
was unrelated to the Qinhuangdao project. According to information
provided by the ministry, the academy was downgraded simply because the
number of EIA engineers it employed was below the threshold for a Grade
A agency, not because of any suggestion of misconduct.
In its Feb 10 reply to the NGOs, the ministry said "there is no good
reason" to cancel the agency's EIA qualification because the
distribution and collection of the questionnaire was implemented by the
local town government, as requested by the project owner, and that the
academy was only responsible for the design of the questionnaire and the
compilation of the final report, not the results of the questionnaire.
"The letter seemed to acknowledge that the local government and project
owner should be responsible for the collection of public opinion via the
questionnaire. But the law doesn't highlight any legal responsibility
when the raw data provided by the project owner, including the
canvassing of public opinion, were found to be fake," said one of the
authors of the open letter, Mao Da, a PhD student at Beijing Normal
University, who is an expert in solid-waste management.
The collection of public opinion is one of the weakest aspects of the
assessment process, and also the most controversial. The EIA system was
proposed in 1979, but not formally legalized until 2002. Public
participation in the process was not enshrined in law until 2006.
Wang Qi, head of the Institute of Environmental Engineering Technology
at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, said the
requirement for public participation in the current Environmental Impact
Assessment Law is too simple and imprecise.
He said that despite the claims that the data had been skewed in this
case, the general situation has improved over the years. "Nowadays, the
level of public support suggested by the final report is usually more
than 60 percent. But years ago, the figure was always as high as 90
percent," said Wang. "It must not be too low, though, otherwise it's not
possible to move on with the other assessment procedures."
The ministry's reply to the open letter emphasized that a revision of
the requirement of public participation is being considered.
All lights are green
"Most of the projects under assessment will be passed eventually, it's
always just a matter of time," said Zhao Zhangyuan, a former member of
an expert team at the ministry's environmental and engineering appraisal
He said the fundamental problem is that the EIA agencies do not provide
a public service, but are paid by the project owners. "For them, the EIA
is nothing but a necessary step in getting their projects approved and
they only care about getting a positive assessment. It's like a lawyer
defending a client - you take the job, you get the money, but you
certainly don't try to prove your client is guilty."
Moves to salvage the deeply flawed system have been under way since
2010. Wang said all levels of the environmental department are
responsible for the evaluation of the assessment reports, but as most
EIA agencies are affiliated to the department, a large question mark
hangs over the impartiality of the system.
While the goal of the reform is to separate the EIA agencies from the
environmental department, experts said the situation has barely changed
in the three years since the changes were proposed.
Xia Jun, who has been a public interest lawyer in Beijing for 13 years,
argued that the EIA agencies should apply a "credit system".
"A company's previous performance in environmental protection is not
taken into account under the current EIA system," he said. "If companies
have violated the environmental laws in the past, the requirements to
get their projects passed by the EIA should be tougher than usual. If
that were the case, companies would be more careful about environmental
issues, because their past actions may affect their future."
More than 50 key hydropower projects are listed in the country's
Five-Year Plan for energy development (2011-2015), released by the State
Council, China's cabinet, on Jan 23.
One of those is the controversial Xiaonanhai hydropower project in
Chongqing, southwest China, which may have a serious impact on the
future of rare fish - including the Paddlefish from the Polyodontidae
family, the Largemouth Bronze Gudgeon (Coreius guichenoti), and the
Chinese suckerfish (Myxocyprinus asiaticus) - that use the Yangtze River
as a route to their annual spawning grounds.
In 2000, a crucial conservation zone on the upper reaches of the Yangtze
River was built to ease the ecological impact of the Three Gorges Dam
project, but it has twice been reduced in size to provide more space for
the dams, practically destroying the original purpose of the zone.
Experts perceived the release of the energy plan as a green light for
the hydropower projects, although the results of the EIAs have yet to be
The situation corresponds to a problem pinpointed by Chai Fahe, deputy
head of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences. In a
paper published in 2000, Chai commented that China's EIA system is
always "in a passive position".
"The assessment always takes place after a development plan has somehow
gained government approval, which means the EIA system can only work to
come up with catch-up plans to control the potential environmental
risks," wrote Chai.
Although the EIA system now covers assessment of the planning of
development projects, the situation is still basically unchanged,
according to Xia.
"In China, lawsuits about environmental issues all focus on individual
projects. A regional plan has never been subject to a lawsuit, something
that is normal in the West," he said. "Planning that takes environmental
issues into account should be the first line of defense, rather than
environmental impact assessment."
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