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Paying the Bill for Songhua River Pollution

"Without water supply, my bathhouse has closed since November 22, causing me a daily loss of some 7,000 yuan," Hu Yanhong, owner of Qingming Public Bath in Harbin City, told China Economic Times on November 29, and she has gone to Saver Law Firm in Heilongjiang Province to seek legal advice.


"Actually, a lot of restaurants, public bathhouses and car wash stations, which were affected the most by the Songhua River pollution, have sent their complaints to us," Liu Hongpu, a lawyer from the firm, told the paper. "We've already set about handling these cases."


A blast at a chemical plant of Jilin Petrochemical Company under China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) on November 13 sent an 80-kilometer-long slick of benzene into the Songhua River, which flows through Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces.


"In the short and long run, the pollution will bring incalculable losses to Harbin, Heilongjiang and the whole river basin," Professor Lü Bingnan of Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) said on December 1.


"Both the Law on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution and Environmental Protection Law explicitly prescribe that any pollution victims, individual or department, have the right to claim indemnity, and polluters must pay for the loss incurred," said Hu Fengbin, director of the Beijing-based Saverbj Law Firm, belonging along with Heilongjiang's Saver Law Firm to the same Saver Legal Group.


Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), told a press conference in Beijing on November 24 that the chemical plant where the explosion occurred should be held responsible for the pollution of Songhua River.


"However, our initial investigation found that the plant didn't register at the local administrative bureau for industry and commerce. Thus we're preparing to sue the Jilin Petrochemical Company, or even CNPC," Hu Fengbin said in an interview with China Economic Times on November 29.


Previously, Zhang Zuoji, governor of Heilongjiang, said his province suffered heavily from the river pollution. The accident forced Harbin to suspend water supply from November 22 to 27 because of contamination. During that period, 29 industrial enterprises in the city stopped production and 23 reduced production, leading to a daily loss in output value of nearly 100 million yuan.


In addition, the unexpected incident cost the government financial and material resources in quantity. For instance, Zhang took 10 million yuan from his governor's fund to control pollution, and the government also allocated funds for purchase of activated carbon to upgrade water filtration systems and for evaluation of environment after the polluted water passed by. The province's tourism and its reputation for producing environmentally friendly food were adversely affected too.


Chen Jinsong, a researcher with the development and research center of Heilongjiang provincial government, estimated that at present the direct loss brought about by the accident might amount to some 1.5 billion yuan, according to a December 1 report carried by China Economic Times. And Harbin's tourism is expected to lose 5 billion yuan or so in this season, he said.


In an interview with the paper on November 29, Meng Fanxu, president of Heilongjiang's Lawyers' Association, said though a comprehensive investigation hasn't been made, this can be regarded as a typical tort case resulting from river pollution. Jilin Petrochemical Company should be held responsible for inconveniency and economic losses inflicted upon residents and enterprises on the lower reaches.


According to law, affected individual families, enterprises and Harbin municipal government are legitimate in litigating against any negligent parties and claiming damages, Meng said.


His view was echoed by Wang Qingyun, head of Jurisprudence Institute in Heilongjiang.


The amount to claim for is not hard to be affirmed, Wang said. "Purchase of activated carbon and allocation of governor's fund are both clear evidence for the local government's expenditure in controlling pollution. It's even easier to determine the damages individual families and enterprises sustained from water cut-offs."


Jilin Petrochemical Company has polluted Songhua River for decades. "The accident sounded the alarm once again, urging the central government to place its relocation on the agenda," Hu Fengbin said.


In another development, Xinhua News Agency reports that a review committee passed on November 29 the "Evaluation of Influences on Eco-environment by Water Pollution of Songhua River and Technical Restoration Project," which was jointly made by Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, Research Center for Eco-environmental Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, SEPA's Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Tsinghua University, et al. An expert group hurried to the scene on November 30 to sample and analyze pollutants in the river.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da, December 5, 2005)

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