- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

BEIJING (Agence France-Presse) — Worsening environmental problems are threatening social stability in China as aggrieved residents resort to protests to make their voices heard, a senior official said this week.

Severe pollution prompted at least 510,000 public disputes last year, which “caused a great threat to social stability,” said Zhou Shengxian, head of the State Environmental Protection Administration. “Mass incidents,” such as protests related to environmental problems, have been rising at an average rate of 29 percent a year, Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying.

“If environmental protection continues to lag behind economic growth, [pollution] will get worse and will be harder to control,” Xinhua quoted Mr. Zhou as telling a national conference on environmental protection Wednesday in Beijing.

“Local officials … who fail to meet requirements will pay a price for turning a blind eye to the law,” Mr. Zhou warned.

His remarks highlighted the growing unease felt by senior Chinese officials at increasingly frequent environmental disasters.

A chemical spill November that spewed 100 tons of benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River in northeast China after a chemical-factory explosion sent alarm bells ringing in Beijing.

Since that incident, 76 major environmental accidents have occurred — on average, one every two days, Mr. Zhou said.

These include a cadmium spill in Guangdong Province that left tens of thousands along the Beijiang River without water for days.

With Beijing engulfed by a heavy sandstorm this week, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called for renewed efforts to protect the environment.

“We must fully recognize the critical and complicated situation regarding environmental protection in our country,” Mr. Wen told the same national conference on Tuesday.

Environmental mishaps in 2005 caused up to 105 million yuan, or about $13 million, in economic losses, Xinhua said.

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