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Pioneering court plays vital role in protecting environment

By YANG JUN and WANG XIAOYU in Guiyang ( China Daily Global)

Updated: 2021-02-02

Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province and a front-runner in China's digital economy, is also home to the country's first court solely devoted to handling environmental cases.

About an hour's drive from the city lies Hongfeng Lake, which takes its name from the red leaves adorning the lakeside maple trees every autumn.

The lake, which covers 57 square kilometers in Guiyang and neighboring Anshun city, is a major source of drinking water for local residents.

A two-story, plain building sits on the east bank, housing the environmental protection court responsible to Qingzhen People's Court in Qingzhen, a county-level city administered by Guiyang.

Luo Qianguang, head of the court, said it was established in late 2007 to help tackle deteriorating water quality in the lake. This issue emerged in 2002, when a devastating bloom of algae caused a series of bad odors to reach nearby neighborhoods, raising concerns about the impact on drinking water.

However, as the pollution source was mainly located on upper reaches of the lake outside of the jurisdiction of Guiyang, remedial efforts were weak and insufficient.

"The main benefit of the court is that it is in charge of all environmental cases in the city, its districts and counties. In recent years, it has handled all types of cases-criminal, civil and administrative lawsuits, along with a rising number of public interest litigation cases," Luo said.

The fact that a single institution handles environmental cases is believed to have been a "game-changer" in rooting out pollutants in Hongfeng Lake and restoring its waters, Luo said.

The first case heard by the court involved a chemical engineering company in Anshun that had dumped millions of metric tons of phosphorus waste near the lake since the 1990s and was responsible for the algal bloom on its lower reaches.

About one month after it was established, the court issued its first ruling, ordering the company to shut down production lines and remove all phosphorus waste left by the lakeside.

According to the court, the amount of phosphorus in the lake fell by nearly 60 percent from 2007 to 2010.

"More important, the court became an inspiration for local governments as well as the top court (the Supreme People'Court), which adopted its working mechanism in following years," Luo said.

For the past 14 years, the court, which is staffed by fewer than 10 people, has become a testing ground for a host of innovative rules, regulations and settlements designed for environmental cases.

The court is allowed to issue injunctions against polluting enterprises before a case is settled, Luo said.

"Completing legal procedures takes time, and the longer it takes, the more damage is done to the environment. Allowing the court to intervene earlier is vital for curbing the spread of pollutants as soon as possible," he said.

"Compared with administrative orders from the local environmental protection bureau, a ban from the court is more forceful and has a stronger deterrent effect," Luo added.

The court also allows experts to analyze cases. "Both the plaintiff and the defendant can invite experts recognized by the court for their expertise to provide opinions," he said.

Luo added that the number of cases filed to the court annually had risen from an initial 100 to more than 400 in recent years. However, due to the pandemic, last year it handled about 290 cases.

"In environmental cases, we always emphasize the significance of restoring the environment, instead of being fixated on handing out penalties," he said.

"For example, companies convicted of fishing illegally are also ordered to plant more trees and disperse fish seedlings in waters. Such efforts are taken into consideration when we make legal decisions," Luo said.

Over the years, the court has also encouraged nonprofit organizations, volunteers, lawyers and companies to unite in implementing regular supervision efforts, and has offered to provide legal guidance for this work.

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