Courts get tough on polluters but officials need re-education

As a web of official crossed-lines continues to permeate China’s pollution policies, environmentalists are taking heart in some serious sentences for pollution handed down by courts across Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

As we reported last week, China is facing an up-hill battle over water pollution but optimists will take heart from jailing 13 people in a case involving heavy cadmium pollution into the Longjiang River from April 2011. According to Xinhua, three of those sentenced were environmental inspectors.

Zeng Juefa, former vice director of Hechi City Environmental Protection Bureau, got four and a half years in prison for “delinquency” and taking bribes. Lan Qunfeng and Wei Yi, who headed a district environmental inspection team under the bureau, were each handed jail terms of three years and six months on the same charges, reported Xinhua.

While the court’s confirmed the officials had all taken bribes, they did not identify who had paid them between CNY45,000 (USD7,335) and CNY20,000 (USD3,258).

Guangxi Jinhe Mining Co was found guilty of pollution and fined CNY1 million (USD162,942) while the company’s three managers were each sentenced to three years in jail, suspended in two of the cases. Seven managers of another polluter, Hongquan Lithophone Material, were also sentenced to three to five years in jail.

For China these sentences are astonishing. Last month China’s Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a joint interpretation of the conviction and sentencing standards for criminal cases involving environmental pollution. Essentially they told the country’s courts to toughen up and bring criminal and public security laws to bear. A death sentence may apply in the most serious cases.

Just how lenient the courts have been on polluters can be seen in the aftermath of an investigation by the Ministry of Environmental Protection into groundwater pollution in six provinces in North China. It recommended that 88 out of the nearly 26,000 companies investigated should be fined, but the average fine imposed was less than CNY70,000 (USD11,000).

As with many things in China, however, we are seeing a big leap forward and a bit of a hop and skip back. Just as one set of cadmium dumpers get a proverbial kick in the rear, the Beijing Times howled with indignation that one Chen Shaomeng also deserved the boot.

The deputy director of the agriculture bureau in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, told people to get on with eating cadmium-polluted rice as it wouldn’t do them any harm for a year or two. Chen made his comment in response to public outrage over tests that showed nearly half the rice served in Guangzhou restaurants hade cadmium levels above legal limits.

What is astonishing is that someone holding such a position should either be so ignorant or calculating to make such a stupid remark. Cadmium poisoning has a cumulative effect on the human body and causes kidney problems and cancer. The official has since apologized although, according to the China Daily, he added that he “now feels uneasy” about making the comment. Nothing about stupid though.

Meanwhile over a tonne of oil spilled from a cracked underground pipeline polluted a section of Haojiachuan River in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Yanchang Petroleum Group’s Pipeline Transportation Company, the operator of the pipeline said it had immediately turned off the oil valve after the leakage was detected.

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