Environmental Bureau Seeks Expanded Rules on Public Interest Litigation

March 15, 2005

According to an article in the 21st Century Business Herald, officials at the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) are pursuing legal reforms to strengthen the ability of state prosecutors to bring environmental lawsuits in the public interest.

Chinese environmental activists seeking to bring cases on behalf of pollution victims often face substantial obstacles. A 21st Century Business Herald article describes the difficulty lawyers and activists, who often work as volunteers, have had in pursuing such cases due to insufficient evidence, insufficient resources, and unclear legal standing. As environmental law expert Wang Canfa notes, pollution cases involving the air or public land are often rejected by courts on the grounds that individual plaintiffs do not have ownership rights over these public resources and consequently lack legal standing.

SEPA officials are trying to address some of these problems by clarifying the role and ability of state prosecutors to bring such environmental cases in the public interest. Provincial authorities have already begun experimenting with such measures. At the end of 2004, the Sichuan provincial procuratorate established rules authorizing local officials to bring environmental suits on behalf of the public. However, as a result of lack of clarity in national law, prosecutors often face significant practical difficulties in bringing such cases to court.

Government officials disagree as to the scope of these reforms. According to the article, Pan Yue, Vice Director of SEPA, supports more sweeping reforms (based on American models) allowing environmental NGOs, not merely state prosecutors, to bring lawsuits on behalf of the public. Such changes would grant private, non-governmental organizations significantly more leeway to pursue violations of environmental laws. They would also represent a reduction in the role of the state. The article suggests that such reforms are unlikely to be adopted. Reforms to confirm the role of state prosecutors in pursuing these cases appear to be a compromise. While addressing some of the problems, such changes also ensure that primary responsibility for pursuing those responsible for environmental violations remains with the government.

The proposed changes appear to be part of an overall campaign to strengthen and enforce legislation to protect natural resources and to enhance the ability of pollution victims to pursue legal action against polluters. SEPA recently launched a campaign to enforce the Environmental Impact Assessment Law to prevent the further degradation of the environment, initially focusing on dam construction projects. In addition, the NPC passed an amendment to the Law on Solid Waste Pollution. Activist Wang Canfa described the amendment as a breakthrough in the rights of pollution victims, but noted that many questions remain unanswered. The new environmental protection public interest litigation regulations may help clarify these unresolved issues. The success of such litigation, however, may depend on the roles that the government allows environmental NGOs to play, as well as the cases that public prosecutors choose to bring to trial. Further information on the work of environmental NGOs in China may be found in the testimony submitted during a recent CECC Issues Roundtable on environmental NGOs.