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July 31st, 2009:

Chinese to launch first ever green lawsuit against government

‘Breakthrough’ hailed as Chinese judge says residents may prosecute government over pollution claims

Benxi steel mills blowing smoke over residential buildings.

China should see its first lawsuit by an environmental group against authorities within weeks, state media reported today.

A member of the All-China Environmental Federation – which is backed by the central government – said a judge in Guizhou province had accepted its claim on behalf of residents who complain they have suffered from pollution.

Residents allege that the Qingzhen land resources bureau leased land to a drinks factory in 1994, but construction of the factory has not been completed and they believe the site is damaging two adjacent lakes from which they draw drinking water. They want the government to take back the land and remove construction materials.

Ma Yong, director of the legal service centre at the federation, told the Associated Press the case would open in early September.

“The case will serve as a warning for government departments and companies that damage the environment, as we’re stepping up efforts to play a supervisory role,” Ma Yong said. He added that he hoped it would pave the way for other organisations to file public-interest lawsuits.

Liu Haiying, deputy head of the environmental protection tribunal at Qingzhen municipal people’s court, told China Daily: “We are established to safeguard public interest and hope to encourage other courts to step forward to handle similar cases.”

She added: “No matter what the conclusion is, we hope it will serve as a warning to government departments such as environment, forestry and other agencies, that they should always fulfill their duty to protect the environment.

“They need to gradually realise that they are not only under the supervision of the party and other administrative departments, but also under the watch of all citizens.”

Environmental activists complain that courts usually turn away such cases.

“If this leads to more non-governmental organisations bringing public interest litigation I think this is a very important breakthrough. It means China is going to open the door to more public involvement in environmental enforcement,” said Alex Wang, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US environmental group.

In a separate development, China is to shift a planned £3bn oil refinery and petrochemical plant in the south after years of public outcry.

Wang Yang, the Communist Party chief of Guangdong, said the province would move the plant – a joint venture between China’s Sinopec and the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation – because of opposition from the community and officials.

“We only have one planet to live on, so whatever we do on this end will affect others on the other end,” Wang told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

“The decision by the government shows that they do consider the opinions from different stakeholders across the region, which is a positive sign,” said Edward Chan, a Greenpeace campaign manager based in Hong Kong.

“Our worries now are that the residents [in the new area] are not as well-educated or informed, or may be more eager to look for economic development.

“The story has not ended. It’s really important for green groups to pay attention to where the project is moving to.”

It is thought the factory will be relocated away from Nansha to Zhanjiang in western Guangdong, a less ecologically sensitive area.