Chinese lawyers sue government for failure to stop smog

PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI - Several Chinese lawyers are suing the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei for what they say has been their failure to fulfil responsibilities in battling against smog, which has shrouded the region since Saturday.

Home to seven of China's 10 smoggiest cities last year, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, also known as Jing-Jin-Ji, is a front line in China's "war on pollution", and it has pledged to cut coal use and promote cleaner industries.

But pollution levels have soared this week as a result of rising winter coal use as well as "unfavourable weather conditions", which have brought concentrations of dangerous breathable particles known as PM2.5 to record levels at some monitoring stations.

Since Saturday, a total of 24 cities have declared pollution"red alerts", including Beijing, Tianjin and another eight locations in Hebei province.

The lawsuit, posted by lawyer Li Zhongwei on his Twitter-like Weibo microblogging account on Tuesday, accused the region of being "all talk and little action", adding that the red alerts "proved that local governments had not conscientiously fulfilled their legal obligations to control air pollution".

The lawyers in the suit said the region had allowed pollution to increase in the interests of "toxic economic growth", severely endangering the physical and mental health of millions of people.

They called on the three governments to issue a formal apology and pay damages to the complainants.

Cheng Hai, another lawyer behind the suit, told Reuters that governments bore overall responsibility for pollution and needed to be held to account. "We believe that China's smog is not unavoidable, but is the result of weaknesses in governance," he said. "Ordinary people think that the previous stage of economic growth led inevitably to smog, but this is completely wrong." China has promised to provide legal channels that will allow citizens to sue polluters, and special tribunals have been set up across the country to deal with environmental lawsuits.

China's amended environmental protection law, which went into effect at the beginning of last year, allows individuals to take legal action, but only via non-profit "social organisations" that have been approved by the government. "Our plan is to file the suit and we will receive the verdict within seven days on whether or not it will be accepted, and if it is not accepted, we will take it to the higher courts," said Cheng.

Smog blankets northeast China

  • More than 40 cities in China's northeast have issued pollution warnings in the past 48 hours after being blanketed by heavy smog.
  • Air quality index (AQI) readings at some monitoring stations in Tianjin, a port and industrial city southeast of Beijing, peaked above 400.
  • China's environmental watchdog issued a five-day warning on Friday about choking smog spreading across the northeast.
  • The authority also ordered factories to shut, recommended residents stay indoors and curbed traffic and construction work.
  • Pollution alerts have become increasingly common in China's northern industrial heartland, especially during winter when energy demand - much of it met by coal - skyrockets.
  • In addition, heavy winds force pollution from nearby provinces to the Beijing-Tianjin area where it remains suspended over the cities.
  • Beijing's city government ordered 1,200 factories near the Chinese capital, including a major oil refinery run by state oil giant Sinopec, to shut or cut output on Saturday.
  • On Saturday, 22 cities issued red alerts including top steelmaking city Tangshan in Hebei province around Beijing, and Jinan in coal-rich Shandong province.
  • Red alerts are issued when the AQI is forecast to exceed 200 for more than four days in succession, 300 for more than two days or 500 for at least 24 hours.
  • Tianjin was placed on orange alert - the second highest level - on Sunday.
  • In Beijing, the city's Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre showed air quality readings of above 300 in some parts on Sunday (Dec 18) afternoon.
  • But the index was below 200 in most parts of the Chinese capital.
  • "When I went out yesterday I didn't wear a mask and my throat really hurt and I felt dizzy. It was hard to breathe through my nose," Chen Xiaochong, a hotel manager in the capital, told Reuters
  • A man swims in a lake in smog during a heavily polluted day in Beijing.
  • The forbidden city is seen in smog during a heavily polluted day.
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