Hebei Environmental Litigation Test Case

A fisherman in Hebei province in central China has had his environmental litigation claim against two steel companies and the local authorities that allegedly allowed them to pollute accepted by a high court in Hebei, reports Caixin Global.

Feng Jun claims that the steel plants set up on the banks of the Baoqiu River in 2001 and 2006 by Langfang Shenhua Industry and Trading Co. Ltd and Hebei Jinming Accurate Cold-rolling Steel Plate Co. Ltd caused two of his daughters to contract leukemia, resulting in the death of the younger of the two in 2007. Both girls became sick, Feng Jun and his lawyers allege, after drinking water that had been polluted by the plants on the riverside.

In 2008, Feng Jun made his first claim against the two companies, when he sought damages to pay for his daughters’ medical care at Dacheng County People’s Court, and then at the Langfang People’s Intermediate Court. At each instance, the claim failed as Feng Jun was held to have not been able to demontrate a causal link between the polluted water and the illnesses suffered by his daughters. Fearful of the influence of the two defendent companies, the doctors who had previously advised that the riverwater may have been the source of his daughters’ illnesses, refused to submit affidavits in support of Feng Jun’s claim.

Unsuccessful in pursuing the two companies, in 2015 Feng Jun turned instead to claims against the local environmental authorities of Dacheng county and the city of Langfang, who it is alleged did not conduct proper environmental assessments before allowing the companies to establish the steel plants. Their reports suggested that there was no drinking water in 500 metres of a plant, but Feng Jun’s family well was a mere 30 metres away. The plants began discharging pollutants and wastewater into the Baoqiu River,  which flows through numerous villages in Hebei – many with high incidences of cancer – and Feng Jun claims that in turn his family well and fishpond also became polluted.

hebei environmental litigation
Discharge into the Baoqui River, Hebei Province

Dacheng county’s Environmental Protection Bureau said that they had conducted tests on the waterways around the site of the steel plants, with the results being well within the government’s stipulated safety limits. Feng Jun contends, however, that a test he paid the county’s health authority to carry out proved quite the opposite: that the level of arsenic in his family well was 2.4 times over the national average. The factories near to his home were the only possible source of the pollution.

That the court agreed to hear Feng Jun’s claim was something of a surprise, given that the events that allegedly led to his daughters contracting leukemia fell outside of the 5 year time limitation for environmental litigation claims. Feng Jun’s lawyers contended that the 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment laws themselves were not sufficiently accessible, in that they were simply not known by those who may be able to rely on them to make claims; and, they argued, nor was the 5 year time limitation reasonable, given that it can take years for the damage caused by pollution and environmental to manifest.

The courts will still demand that Feng Jun show a causal link between the pollution he alleges the steel plants have a caused, and the illnesses suffered by his daughters for his claim to succeed. However, amendments made to the Environmental Protection Law in 2014 allow NGOs and government prosecutors to make claims agianst those causing pollution, “ecological damage and harming public interest”, with the words ‘harming public interest’ in particular having a wide-ranging interpretation. The results of other cases using these laws is not known, however, and the lack of transparency within the Chinese legal system remains all too evident. Feng Jun will most likely have his day in court, but whether his claim is a success or otherwise remains to be seen.

 

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