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China's Environmentalists Face Steep Challenges

People line up to buy cartons of bottled water at a supermarket after reports on heavy levels of benzene in local tap water, in Lanzhou, Gansu province, April 11, 2014.

People line up to buy cartons of bottled water at a supermarket after reports on heavy levels of benzene in local tap water, in Lanzhou, Gansu province, April 11, 2014.

In China, there is increasing public interest in environmental protections, but few legal avenues to go after and punish polluters. In the western city Lanzhou, a group of citizens has tried to file a lawsuit after a chemical leak contaminated their water source.

The government of Lanzhou, the capital of China's Western province of Gansu, told residents last week that a major tap water source had been contaminated with Benzene, a cancer causing chemical.

The contamination was caused by an oil leak from a buried pipeline. According to the government, the problem affected 2.4 million people.

Local officials said the problem was resolved by Sunday, but admitted their failure to supervise the city's water supplier, Sino-French firm Lanzhou Veolia Water Co.

But when citizens this week tried to sue the company for compensation, a local court swiftly rejected the case on the grounds that as individuals, the residents do not have the right to sue for infringements on public interest.

Cao Mingde, a legal scholar at China University of Political Science and Law, who specializes on environmental legislation, says that the court's rebuttal is in fact correct.

“Citizens suing for environmental damage do not qualify as litigants because the Civil Procedure Law states that only agencies and organizations that are stipulated by the law are allowed to file pollution-related lawsuits on behalf of public interest,” he said.

Pleading for accountability

In recent years, environmental organizations in China have been pushing for ways to hold the government and companies more accountable when their actions cause harm to the public.

They say that increasing the scope of public interest lawsuits is one important step.

It would widen public participation, they say, instead of relying only on the government and government-sanctioned groups who in court might represent their own interests over the public good.

Details about such lawsuits are included in a revision of the environmental protection law expected to be adopted later this year.

Specifics of the draft, the fourth so far, are still being debated.

While scholars in China say the draft will succeed in prioritizing the environment above development, it remains unclear how it will tackle public interest lawsuits.

“Even if this amendment to the law is adopted, individuals will still not be qualified to represent public interest to file lawsuits,” said Cao Mingde, who has been involved in drafting the latest amendment.

Easing requirements for claims

A less controversial step could be to lower the requirements for independent groups to bring such cases to justice.

In the last public version of the amendment, only national organizations approved by the Civil Ministry and with at least five years of active work in public interest litigation are allowed to file environmental cases on behalf of a group.

Ma Jun, head of a Beijing-based environmental think tank, said that might be expanded with the new draft.

“We understand that the current version [of the amendment] which is going to be submitted will further extend the standing, which is encouraging. That will hopefully allow more environmental groups to get the standing to file public interest lawsuits," he said.

"It's a positive move, but if you compare it with the Hong Kong situation or other Commonwealth countries, you can say the threshold is still much higher," said Lin Feng, a professor of law at City University of Hong Kong.

The United States has been in the forefront of class-action legislation, and allows individuals to bring collective lawsuits against polluters.

Legislation in Europe varies in scope, and some countries retain a more narrow approach on who can sue.

Last year, the European Union recommended member states introduce “collective redress mechanism” in their systems by 2015.