- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

QINGZHEN, China | China’s environmental movement Tuesday scored a victory that could set a precedent for public-interest lawsuits in a nation that has become the poster child for industrial pollution.

For the first time, a Chinese court accepted a lawsuit brought by an environmental group against a government body, prompting a local land agency to resolve the matter without even waiting for the court to rule.

The quasi-official All-China Environment Federation (ACEF) - a public-interest group affiliated with the Ministry of Environmental Protection - filed the lawsuit in this dingy southern city against the Qingzhen Municipal Land Resources Bureau.

In response, the bureau disclosed that it had issued an administrative order to resolve the complaint over an unfinished factory that was polluting a local lake, settling an issue that had been festering for nearly 15 years.

“This was a great breakthrough,” Ma Yong, director of the ACEF litigation department, said after the trial. “The purpose of doing this, filing a lawsuit like this, is not just to engage in a lawsuit, but to encourage governments at various levels to take care of local environmental problems and safeguard public rights and interests. That’s what we really wanted to see.”

The case centered on property at the Baihua Lake scenic area outside Qingzhen purchased in 1994 by a man who planned to build a beverage and ice cream factory.

Under the terms of a 50-year lease, the land was to revert to the local government and all buildings on the site razed if construction was not finished within a year.

The project was never completed, however, and local residents began to worry about potential dangers to the drinking-water supply from the unfinished construction. So they contacted ACEF.

The Qingzhen Municipal People’s Court, where the case was heard, is a pilot environmental court, established in the face of growing public concern about the health effects of widespread pollution stemming from China’s rapid economic growth.

Whether more nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will follow ACEF’s lead and file cases at other environmental courts across the country is unclear. Also under debate is whether any NGO besides ACEF - with its connections to a government entity - would have had its case accepted.

Two other provinces - Yunnan and Jiangsu - have set up similar courts, but only one other public-interest lawsuit has been filed, also directed by ACEF against a port container company in the city of Wuxi in Jiangsu.

The environmental courts are still works in progress and have not been officially sanctioned by the Supreme People’s Court of China, nor backed by national legislation.

Gao Jie, a Beijing-based environmental-law specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental group, said she doubts that a wave of environmental lawsuits will engulf local governments and businesses. A more firm legal foundation likely will have to be built before cases like this become more widespread, she said.

“NGOs in China are a diverse pool, so it will take some time to see where this leads,” Ms. Gao said.

“The good thing here is to see how this case put pressure on the land bureau to do something. The first mission is to push enterprises and the government to fulfill their environmental responsibilities.”

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