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May 16, 2015

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NGOs take quarry owners to court

A CHINESE court has been hearing an environmental damage lawsuit filed by two NGOs against a quarry, the first of its kind under China’s new environmental law.

The case, filed by Friends of Nature and Fujian Green Home, opened in the Nanping Intermediate People’s Court in the southeastern province of Fujian yesterday.

The two NGOs have accused four people of running an unlicensed quarry that severely damaged vegetation on a hillside in Nanping City from 2008 and demand the quarry owners restore the vegetation. They have also asked the defendants to pay 1.3 million yuan (US$220,000) in compensation.

In court, the local procuratorate expressed support for the plaintiffs, saying that all four defendants had made mistakes that damaged the forest.

This is the first case filed by an NGO for environmental damage not related to pollution to be heard since the amended Environmental Protection Law took effect on January 1. The law allows NGOs to initiate environmental lawsuits.

The defendants argued that Friends of Nature has no standing in the case, claiming the NGO has not been in existence for the five years the law requires before bringing such a lawsuit.

A verdict will be released at a later date.

China has only about 80,000 officials to enforce environmental laws, and 1.5 million companies — only counting the registered ones — for them to oversee. Now, about 700 organizations can join the fight.

The new law allows any NGO of sufficient size that has specialized in environmental protection for more than five years to initiate legal cases on pollution and environmental damage. Many difficulties, including high expenses, are involved in such actions, so a great increase in environmental lawsuits is unlikely.

“These lawsuits can deter polluters by raising their legal costs and by encouraging public supervision,” said Ma Yong, legal expert with the All-China Environment Federation.

Some local courts are still reluctant to hear environmental lawsuits as they believe they should be resolved by the government. Even if courts hear such cases, they often have to deal with interference from local governments.

“Such lawsuits are an important supplement to government enforcement and the last line of defense, but not replacement for strong government action,” Ma said. “Most environmental problems can only be solved by the government.”


 

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