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The official newspaper of China’s Supreme Court has castigated local officials in Wuhan for not doing more to protect the city’s residents from two-recently built waste incinerators. Critics say the incinerators are located near schools and water treatment facilities that are in breach of environmental laws.

A lack of enforcement by central government will lead to challenges to the new environmental protection law, damaging the credibility of the law. The judiciary is positioning itself more clearly and increasing awareness of its independence, rather than dependence on the government. Previously, courts would not risk holding local officials to account, making it difficult to enforce environmental laws. China’s courts have long been subordinate to the authority of the Communist Party but the central government, mindful of the political impact of environmental breaches, has approved a more independent track for the judiciary to prosecute wrongdoers. But in the case of the Wuhan waste treatment plants, no legal hearing has been scheduled. That means that the responsibility of pursuing the Wuhan incinerator cases rests with local courts rather than the city government.

The two facilities, located side-by-side, are close to two kindergartens, an elementary school and homes to 30,000 people. Although the household waste plant was temporarily closed at the end of 2013 after the Hubei Environmental Protection Department found its operation illegal, it soon started operating again despite no approval having been given by environmental protection authorities.

China’s new environmental law, which came into effect on 1st, January 2014, is intended to beef up protection for residents against breaches of environmental controls. But during its first month, activists have expressed worries about its implementation, in particular, local governments have put pressure on courts to be lenient, or even ordered them not to accept cases. The Wuhan case has highlighted this problem.

In August 2014, a court in Wuhan declined to hear a case brought by five residents living near the controversial waste treatment plants. According to an investigation, both incinerators are illegally releasing harmful substances, but local residents protesting against the plants have been detained.

This case shows that environmental cases are often complex: government failings and misconduct are often the main reasons for pollution caused by companies; relocating the incinerators would be a huge problem for the local government, and so is claimed to have interfered with the court’s handling of the case.

The main problem is that environmental problems are common, but judicial redress is largely unavailable.

The successful implementation of the new environmental protection law will depend on local government: to solve China’s environmental problems requires balancing the needs of protecting the environment and fostering economic growth, and it is often local government that has to find that balance, but implementation of the new law will be extremely difficult, mainly because of the close links between business and local government.

The gLawcal Team

LIBEAC project

(Source: China Dialogue)