SEPA Cites Beijing Project for Lack of Environmental Impact Assessment, Holds First Public Hearing

May 9, 2005

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) recently held its first public hearing since the 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law became effective, according to a number of news accounts (see, e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). SEPA officials sought to address controversy over plans to line the lake at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a impermeable plastic liner, which could have a negative impact on the local environment. The 2003 EIA law stipulates that environmental impact assessments for projects that may have a significant effect on the environment should include opinions and suggestions from experts and the general public solicited at a public hearing.

In April 2005, SEPA Vice Director Pan Yue announced that the parties responsible for the Old Summer Palace lake project had not submitted an environmental impact assessment report. Thus, according to news accounts, construction on the project was to stop and SEPA would hold a public hearing for further discussion. Shortly after SEPA began publicizing the project, the Beijing Municipal Publicity Department issued a directive to limit media coverage of the controversy, according to a South China Morning Post article (subscription only). SEPA officials publicized the hearing widely, however, through news reports and the Internet, according to the Beijing News.

At the hearing on April 13, a limited number of pre-screened experts spoke and SEPA officials permitted pre-selected audience members to attend and ask questions. News articles and the hearing transcript reveal that officials responsible for the project planned to line the bottom of the lake to conserve water and reduce the cost of maintaining the lake level. Costs have risen because Beijing city water authorities have raised the price of water in recent years (1, 2) to encourage water conservation.

Some experts criticized the project because the proposed liner woulud affect the ground water supply and prevent the lake from cleaning itself naturally, leading to the environmental degradation of a national historic site. They also assert that Old Summer Palace officials want to maintain the level of the lake to facilitate a boat cruise attraction that is popular with tourists but detracts from the original feel of the park. Also at issue is the charge that bidding for the project may not have been fair. A post-hearing report said that the Old Summer Palace management department will be assessed a small fine of 200,000 yuan for not submitting an EIA report. SEPA has also pledged to review the EIA report once submitted, taking into account the issues raised at the hearing.