Chen Liwen is suing Guangzhou's Environmental Protection Bureau after it refused to fully disclose all the information she requested about the city's only waste incineration power plant. The 31-year-old, who has investigated pollution caused by inappropriate waste disposal since 2010, says getting waste disposal statistics from government is an important part of her work for an environmental NGO, but few governments provided all the information she asked for, even though the mainland had enacted legislation on the disclosure of government information in 2008.
When did you become aware of the waste issue?
I started with the climate change team at a Beijing-based environmental NGO, Global Village, after I earned my master's degree in 2008. I joined another NGO, Nature University, and started focusing on waste issues at the beginning of 2010. After visiting many waste incineration power plants, I realised they're having a big impact on the environment and society.
Why did you sue the Guangzhou environment authority?
On July 20 last year, I submitted an application for four pieces of information on the Likeng waste incineration power plant via the website of Guangzhou's Environmental Protection Bureau. They were: the whole draft of the environmental assessment report on the Likeng project; statistics on air pollutants and dioxin emission by the project between June 2006 and last June; statistics on the production of ash and cinders and how they were treated during the same period; and whether the Likeng project was Guangdong's major source of dioxin emissions.
According to the Regulations for the Disclosure of Government Information, government bodies should reply to public requests for information disclosure within 15 working days. I received the bureau's written reply more than a month later, which just gave some statistics in the second category of information I asked for.
Filing a lawsuit is costly and a last-ditch move for me. By bringing it to court, I hope requests for government information will no longer be so difficult for the public.
The Yuexiu district court heard the case on January 18. We're expecting a reasonable judgment.
Which local governments have you dealt with to get information concerning waste incineration?
From 2011, we applied for information from local environment departments every time we investigated a waste incineration project or conducted an environmental assessment for such a project. They included the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the environmental protection bureaus/departments of Beijing, Jiangsu , Nantong , Qidong , Sichuan , Chengdu , Guangzhou, Jilin , Fuzhou, Beijing's Municipal City Administration and Environment Commission and its Municipal Development and Reform Commission.
How did they reply to your requests?
There were so many unexpected and ludicrous replies. In 2011, the Haian county environment bureau in Jiangsu province replied to us in an e-mail after receiving our application for the environmental assessment report on a local waste incineration power plant. The e-mail contained just one sentence, saying the project had been approved by the provincial environment department.
What we got from Beijing's environment watchdog after applying for statistics on smoke emissions from the Gaoantun waste incineration power plant was a photo of a screen showing monitored data, with one line explaining that we could find the information we wanted from the screen outside the plant.
The funniest experience was in January last year, when we applied for the disclosure of 13 pieces of information from the Jiangsu provincial environment department. The system showed we had submitted our request successfully, but they said they had received scrambled characters and asked us to submit it again. Another funny one was from the Haian county government, which said an intern had lost its environment assessment report.
What impressed me most was that when requesting environmental assessment reports, most of the local governments suggested we get them from the contractor of the project or the drafter of the report, or said they needed to "make inquiries with related companies because it involves business secrets", or "it's not in the category of information the government should voluntarily disclose".
Is this the first time you have filed a lawsuit in order to get government information? Do you think you will win?
Yes, it's the first time. I'm not sure if I can win the lawsuit, and I'm afraid that even if I do, the Guangzhou environment bureau may still not implement the court's decision.
But we will keep moving. The next body we may sue could be the Jiangsu Provincial Environmental Protection Department. We hope that through legal action, environment authorities will face the issue of information disclosure.
What else do you do in seeking to reduce the environmental impact of waste disposal?
There are three other things. The first is public participation - every week, we invite experts or people who engage in treating waste to give free lectures in Beijing, and invite the public to visit waste incineration plants, waste landfill sites, recycling plants and communities which are sorting waste.
The second is field investigation. We investigate places where local residents complain about pollution caused by improper waste disposal, circulate the news if it's true, and help locals solve the problem.
The third is that starting from last year, we have tried doing tests on pollution on our own, in co-operation with some universities.
What are the major problems that China is facing now in terms of waste disposal?
In major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou or other smaller cities, the governments' logic in dealing with waste is the same - make sure it's not in my sight and that's all. In fact, they have not solved the problem by burning or burying it, but just transferred the problem to the air or somewhere else. For example, we got leachate, solid waste and air pollutants after burning.
It seems that some cities have rolled out waste sorting, but few of them actually have a long-term plan on this.
In the central government's five-year plan for waste treatment, on the one hand it says we should push forward with the sorting and recycling of waste, but on the other it also contains a lengthy section on incineration, saying the percentage of waste to be incinerated should be raised and setting goals for different regions. So it seems the central government itself is still thinking more of low-end solutions to the problem.
Chen Liwen spoke to Mandy Zuo