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smh - polluted china strives for a green olympics

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    Polluted China strives for a green Olympics
    Date: March 25 2004

    When a fertiliser plant in southwestern China tried to expand production earlier this month, it inadvertently dumped so much nitrate and ammonia into the local river that the chemicals killed 200 pounds of fish, halted farm irrigation in the area and poisoned drinking water for several cities downstream.

    About the only people who haven't felt any fallout so far are the senior officials who run the polluting factory, the Second Fertiliser Factory of the state-owned Sichuan Chemical Works in the city of Chengdu.

    "We should have the power to shut down a plant like that immediately, but we don't," said Pan Yue, deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration.

    "We can only fine them, and such a small amount at that," he said. "They basically decide it's a cost that doesn't matter."

    Such is the conundrum facing China's largely toothless watchdog in charge of protecting an increasingly ravaged environment. As the country's economy continues to race ahead, it is paying the costs associated with the fast pace of growth.

    New and bigger factories have fuelled the economy and created jobs, but they also are jacking up energy demand, straining natural resources and fouling the air and water.

    Top leaders are taking notice of the problems, but they haven't armed China's environmental watchdog with effective weapons to tackle them. Mr Pan says the Second Fertiliser Factory case has been handed up to the State Council, or cabinet, for resolution. Both the Sichuan Chemical Works and the Second Fertiliser Factory referred questions to the local environmental-protection bureau, which said it didn't have the authority to punish the alleged offenders.

    Mr Pan, 44, a former journalist, is part of an effort to make the state's watchdog more effective. Tomorrow his agency plans to introduce a policy that, if implemented, would hold officials accountable for spoiling the environment. Under the policy, Chinese officials who fail to clean up local pollution and water, or to introduce other measures to make the environment more liveable, would be docked points in job-performance evaluations.

    Evaluations would be based on tests of air, water and soil in their governing areas, as well as on information collected from non-governmental organisations, media reports and citizens. A poor rating could hurt officials' chances for promotion.

    The national environmental-protection agency also is working with China's National Bureau of Statistics to compile indicators for "green growth", a measurement that would draw attention to cities that improve the environment and conserve resources, Mr Pan said.

    China isn't about to abandon the pro-growth policies that have propelled its economy at an average 8 per cent clip for the past decade, environmental-protection officials say. Major foreign investors, which face strict environmental guidelines of their own, aren't expected to be affected much by the new initiative. But Mr Pan said he hoped increased environmental accountability would send a stern message to officials who have tolerated industries that expand at the expense of the environment.

    "China's population is so big and its resources so scarce that if we continue to ignore our environmental problems, that will bring disaster for us and the world," he said.

    The anti-pollution plan has received powerful backing. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who have won praise for their efforts to help the common people since taking office a year ago, touted "sustainable development" at China's annual national legislature meeting earlier this month. Achieving a more environ-mentally friendly balance between consumption and growth is taking on urgency as China's capital, Beijing, prepares to host a "Green Olympics" in 2008.

    In 2002, the environmental watchdog received about 90,000 petitions from citizens complaining of environmental abuse, often industrial accidents, Mr Pan said. He said the total probably rose to about 100,000 last year.

    The damage has been extensive. According to a report late last year by Mr Pan's agency, acid rain falls on a third of China's land, and more than 90 per cent of the rivers running through China's cities are seriously polluted.

    Three-quarters of the population in China's monitored cities breathe unclean air, and 13,000 people die each year from heart disease caused by air pollution.
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