Environmental watchdog lashes out after spill

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 July, 2010, 12:00am

The top environmental watchdog has urged all listed companies to release key pollution information each year and vowed to step up oversight of industrial polluters after another heavy metal poisoning scandal.

After the nation's largest gold producer, Zijin Mining, allowed toxic chemicals to spill into a major waterway in Fujian, the Ministry of Environmental Protection lashed out at local watchdogs for failing to hold big businesses responsible for environmental problems.

'Some local environmental protection agencies have failed to carry out thorough investigation of listed companies,' it said in a directive posted on its website on Tuesday. 'And in some extreme cases, provincial watchdogs have acted beyond their authority to issue environmental endorsement for companies preparing for listing.'

It did not identify the provinces or companies involved.

According to a regulation jointly issued by the ministry and China Securities Regulatory Commission, enterprises in heavily polluting industries must seek environmental approval before listing and are subject to regular scrutiny afterwards.

The ministry said it would establish an environmental review and reporting mechanism for listed companies and would soon publish a list of companies that had met environmental standards since 2005.

Analysts welcomed the move, aimed at increasing the transparency of listed enterprises, saying it would raise environmental awareness among polluting companies and encourage the public to help the government supervise big business.

But they said the latest pollution scandal and the anger expressed by the ministry had laid bare the inability of environmental watchdogs at all levels to rein in unscrupulous enterprises and control widespread heavy metal pollution.

The ministry announced last week that the drafting of a much-anticipated policy paper on how to tackle the country's heavy metal pollution had been completed.

Minister Zhou Shengxian said the five-year blueprint on solving heavy metal pollution, also involving the National Development and Reform Commission, and the ministries of health, finance and agriculture, would be submitted to the State Council for approval soon, China Environmental News reported on Monday.

But environmentalists have expressed doubt about the effectiveness of the policy document, saying tackling heavy metal pollution remains a daunting task.

More than 9,000 cubic metres of acidic, copper-containing waste water was dumped 'accidentally' by Zijin Mining Group, a Xiamen-based company, into a local river on July 3, affecting tens of thousands of people along the river.

The company covered up the incident until Monday and insisted water quality in the river was brought under control on July 4. It was forced to suspend trading in its stock in Hong Kong on Monday and its share price fell 12 per cent the next day.

It was named and shamed by the environment ministry in May for the poor maintenance of its sewage treatment system, which the watchdog said posed major risks.

A string of heavy metal poisoning incidents in the past year in Shaanxi, Hunan, Henan and Yunnan provinces has grabbed international headlines.

Professor Tang Min, the deputy director general of the China Development Research Foundation, said the ministry had taken a step in the right direction to involve the public in its battle against pollution.

'It should become compulsory for enterprises to release key environmental information. It is in line with international trends,' he said.

He and other analysts were critical of the existing supervision mechanism, which they said was monopolised by the government.

Wang Canfa , a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said the blueprint might have only a minimal impact on the country's grave heavy metal poisoning situation, with more poisoning cases likely in future.

'It is only a policy document and it is not a binding bill,' he said. 'We've got good measures, but our real problems are the government's inability to enforce them.'

Treacherous waters

A series of heavy metal poisoning scandals has sparked alarm

The number of tonnes of fish estimated to have died from heavy metal poisoning on July 3 in a Xiamen river is: 9,000