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Chinese Court Rejects Lawsuit Over Lanzhou Water Pollution

A Chinese court has rejected a lawsuit filed by five residents against a water supply company in Lanzhou over excessive levels of carcinogenic benzene found in the tap water.

The Lanzhou Intermediate People's Court said the individuals don't meet legal criteria to sue on the public's behalf over pollution under Article 55 of the Civil Procedure Law. The article states that “only agencies and organizations that are stipulated by the law” are allowed to file pollution-related lawsuits. In such cases, only the China Environment Federation under the environmental bureau can file the lawsuit. 

A map of tap water incidents in China in the past few years. (Picture from Sina Weibo)

A map of tap water incidents in China in the past few years. Images from Sina Weibo.

On April 11, the municipal government asked residents not to drink tap water for 24 hours after tests showed benzene levels in the water supply had reached 20 times the national safety limit. The contamination affected more than two million residents.

Lanzhou, an industrial city of 3.6 million people in northwestern China, depends largely on the Yellow River for its water supply. In recent years, this city has seen a wave of investment frenzy as the state rolled out various initiatives to lift the economic standing of the underdeveloped western regions. 

Wang Canfa, an environmental law professor, told Reuters that courts rarely accept lawsuits filed by people exposed to pollution.

Many lawyers think the court rejection itself was unlawful. Professor of Chinese law Xu Xin wrote on popular microblogging site Sina Weibo:

原告只要喝过污染的水,就与本案有直接利害关系,法院应当受理。这是公民提起的普通民事诉讼,法院不受理是违法的。希望更多个人提起诉讼。同时,希望中华环保联合会等依第55条提起公益诉讼

As long as they drank the polluted water, they are direct victims of the case, and the court should accept their complaint. The court is violating the law for not accepting citizens’ civil action. I hope more individuals file the suit. At the same time, I hope the China Environment Federation files public interest litigation.

Netizen “John-Paul” commented:

裁定不予受理尚且法院的一种作为方式;真正令人无法忍受的是不作为。对于特定类型纠纷,法院往往不予理睬。这种行为公然违反《民诉法》,但却是法院所通常采取的策略。

The rejection is the court’s way to deal with the issue. It's intolerable. The courts tend to ignore certain types of disputes. This flagrant violation of “Civil Procedure Law” is how the courts usually deal with such issues.

Wangyi news pointed out the pitfalls of the law in China:

目前中国大部分的环境公害事件原因,均是政府影响环境的渎职、过失以及越权等行为,纵容、增幅了企业的排放、泄露事故等。最典型的例子,是《环境保护法》修正案中钦点的、垄断环境公益诉讼权的“中华环保联合会”,其企业会员中就不乏排放、污染大户。当会员企业牵涉污染环境案件,“联合会”与会员之间的关联关系将直接影响环境公益诉讼的公正程度,并引发公众对于这些案件是否能得到起诉、起诉力度是否得到保证的合理怀疑。

Most of China's current environmental hazards are caused by the government’s negligence towards the companies’ emissions and leakage accidents. The most typical example is the China Environment Federation, which has monopoly rights on environmental public interest litigation. There is no shortage of emissions polluters among the members of the Federation. When the member companies are involved in environmental pollution cases, it will directly affect the fairness of environmental public interest litigation and trigger doubt about whether these cases can be sued and prosecuted.

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