NGO sues air-polluting company
The air quality in Dezhou city of Jiangsu province has always been unsatisfactory due to industrial pollutants issued by factories, among them a plant operated by Dezhou Jinghua Group Zhenhua Limited Company. Because of Zhenhua Company’s on-going discharge of pollutants above the allowable standard, the Dezhou Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau penalized it four times between December 2013 and February 2015, 100,000 yuan ($14,973) each time. In March of 2015 Zhenhua Company was ordered to suspend all production before April 1 of 2015 and upon renewal of production stop the excessive discharge of pollutants. The All-China Environment Federation, a non-governmental organization, inspected the site and proceeded to sue Zhenhua Company on March 19, 2015.
On March 24 of 2015, Dezhou Intermediate People’s Court accepted the case. As this was the first public interest litigation about air pollution and there was no precedent to consider, judges had to go to local environmental departments and Zhenhua Company to collect evidence, organize an on-the-spot investigation and hold meetings to hear the opinions of both parties. There were two pretrial conferences in September 2015 and February 2016 for exchange of evidence.
The plaintiff requested a postponement of the hearing as it needed more time to gather expert opinions from specialized agencies. In due course the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, entrusted by the plaintiff to do an evaluation, determined that the defendant over the time period evaluated had discharged 255 tons of sulfur dioxide, 589 tons of oxycarbide and 19 tons of dust. The cost to the environment was estimated at 27,460,000 yuan ($4,112,810).
Accordingly, the plaintiff in May applied to set the damages claimed at 27,460,000 yuan.
On June 24, 2014, the Dezhou Intermediate People’s Court began hearing the case. Zhang Shunhua, attorney for the defendant, said that Zhenhua Company had positively rectified and regulated their operation and finally stopped production on March 27, before the rectification deadline of the Environmental Protection Department. He argued that the plaintiff’s suit was therefore unreasonable.
On July 20, the court ruled that the All-China Environment Federation had standing to sue and to seek damages from the defendant as well as an order for apology, cessation of infringement, removal of obstacles, restoration and elimination of dangers.
The court found that the defendant had stopped production on March 27 of 2015 which was a cessation of infringement. However, since the defendant while operating had discharged pollutants beyond the allowable standard and violated the public’s environmental rights, it was ordered to apologize in provincial or higher level media.
Concerning the evaluation by the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, the court said that even though it was prepared for the plaintiff and thus might be considered one-sided, the academy was legally qualified to do the evaluation and the items evaluated were relevant to the pleadings. In addition, the defendant produced no evidence to overturn the evaluation. The court therefore found that the evaluation could be considered as evidence to ascertain facts. Based on it, the court ruled in a written judgment that damages payable by Zhenhua Company were 21,983,600 yuan.
"We feel really proud of the judgment,” said Li Shusen, attorney for the plaintiff.
Li thought it was of great value that the defendant was ordered to apologize in media at a high level. “A regional enterprise apologizing in provincial-level or above media for causing pollution may impact other polluting enterprises.”In his opinion, negative publicity may have greater influence than monetary punishment.