Green watchdog extends its reach

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2006, 12:00am

Eleven new monitoring centres will be set up - all bypassing local governments

China's environmental watchdog has flexed its muscles over rampant local government interference and intends to set up regional centres to handle pollution accidents and environmental disputes.

However, the move by the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa), which is aimed at bypassing local protectionism and strengthening its power, may not be as effective in controlling pollution as expected, an expert says.

According to Sepa's plan, approved recently by the central government, five environmental supervision centres and another six offices monitoring nuclear security will be established.

'All the 11 centres will be under direct control of Sepa, which means they report directly to the top watchdog and will not take or give instructions via local environmental authorities,' said Chen Sai , from Sepa's policy research centre.

'It is an important move to step up pollution control and the timely investigation of major accidents and disputes, especially those involving more than one province, without local government meddling.'

Two environmental centres to monitor eastern and southern China have been set up in Nanjing and Guangzhou, and the other three centres, covering northwestern, southwestern and northeastern parts of the mainland, will be established in Xian, Chengdu and Shenyang. Apart from the five centres, covering 24 provinces and Shanghai, Sepa will watch for environmental hazards around Beijing, including in Tianjin, Hebei and Shanxi .

Another six centres will monitor security at civil and military nuclear facilities in Shanghai, Guangdong and Sichuan as well as those in the north. Fifteen deputy centre chiefs will be selected through an open process from environmental officials around the country, according to Sepa.

The watchdog has been critical of local officials' blind pursuit of economic growth at the cost of the environment.

State media said the move was prompted by a massive water crisis last year caused by a chemical spill in Jilin into the Songhua River and local officials' initial cover-up attempts.

About 80 tonnes of benzene and nitrobenzene were discharged into the river affecting millions of people in Harbin and other cities before the slick flowed into Russia's Amur River in December. The Chinese government later apologised to Russia.

Li Dun , from Tsinghua University, said it would be hard to rein in local interests. 'Sepa is certainly right to seek ways to curb damage to the environment, but local protectionism is far more powerful than expected,' he said.

'As the central government has found it difficult to rein in some ministries and local authorities in managing financial and property sectors, how can we believe that Sepa alone can be effective?'

Strong support from Beijing and the public was needed to ensure the move worked, he said.