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Changes to China’s environmental review law leave activists worried

Under revisions quietly made by the legislature this weekend, projects can seek approval from various departments even if the assessment process isn’t finished

For green activists, environmental impact reviews – despite their often poor implementation – are a critical weapon in the fight against polluting industrial projects.

But under a revision to the assessment law, quietly passed by the National People’s Congress over the weekend, the review is no longer a “precondition” for a project to begin the approval process with other departments.

The change is ostensibly aimed at cutting red tape and ¬removing hurdles to private investment. But activists fear it could usher in a new permissive era, where approval by one department gives a project enough momentum to steamroll a legitimate examination into its effects on the environment.

The review process was enshrined into law in 2003 and effectively gave environmental authorities veto power over a project. and the public a channel to formally register their concerns over a project.

Senior environmental officials – including former vice-minister Pan Yue – used the mechanism to take on powerful state-owned companies and halt construction of dams and petrochemical projects.

Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun said environmental authorities might now come under greater pressure to green light a controversial project if other departments had approved it.

The question is: has the public been given more power to challenge potential polluters instead?

Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun

For instance, if the developer of an incinerator project had won permission to use land for a project and other approvals were ready, environmental authorities might not be willing to reject it.

“It’s not a problem to cut red tape and weaken government power. The question is: has the public been given more power to challenge potential polluters instead? It’s a pity I don’t see such a change in the revision,” Xia said. Zhou Rong, an environmental consultant in Beijing, said the government was right to cut red tape holding up projects, given the drive to boost private investment amid slower economic growth.

“The amendment weakens the vetoing power of the environmental review mechanism, and no feasible alternative has been offered,” she said.

Ge Feng, a legal consultant with Friends of Nature, said the impact of the change would depend on how ministries – especially environmental officials – carried out their duties.

The revision to the law was carried out in an unusual way. Previously, the public was asked to offer their opinion on environmental legislation before it was passed into law.

But they were not asked to participate in the latest revision, which came amid a wave of protests against incinerators in several mainland cities.

Asked whether a weaker review mechanism meant the public’s voice in decision-making was being undermined, Mei Nianshu, a green activist based in Yunnan province, said: “I’m afraid so.”
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