Who guards the green guards?
Updated: 2013-02-21 10:07
By Wu Wenchong and Jiang Xueqing (China Daily)
The Xiangjiaba hydropower facility is one of China's key infrastructure projects. [Zhang Guangyu / for China Daily]
The Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences was one of the eight agencies the ministry downgraded from Grade A to Grade B. Its demotion attracted high-profile media attention in January after a group of environmental NGOs sent an open letter to the ministry and the media.
The letter claimed that the academy had used forged data during the EIA process for a waste-incineration power generation project in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, and requested that its EIA qualification be revoked.
The report, completed in March 2009, claimed that 100 copies of a questionnaire had been handed out to villagers living close to the project, and that 99 of the respondents supported construction of the facility.
However, many villagers balked at the report. Pan Zhizhong, a resident of Panguanying village, one of the four covered by the process, said that in the wake of the consultation process, the villagers discovered that of the 99 people who supposedly supported the project, 15 did not exist, one had died before the questionnaire was issued, 14 had moved away many years before, and one hadn't been seen for eight years after he disappeared while facing criminal charges. A further 65 claimed they had never been given the questionnaire and therefore couldn't have signed it, nor did they support the project.
Although the academy had been downgraded by the ministry, the demotion was unrelated to the Qinhuangdao project. According to information provided by the ministry, the academy was downgraded simply because the number of EIA engineers it employed was below the threshold for a Grade A agency, not because of any suggestion of misconduct.
In its Feb 10 reply to the NGOs, the ministry said "there is no good reason" to cancel the agency's EIA qualification because the distribution and collection of the questionnaire was implemented by the local town government, as requested by the project owner, and that the academy was only responsible for the design of the questionnaire and the compilation of the final report, not the results of the questionnaire.
"The letter seemed to acknowledge that the local government and project owner should be responsible for the collection of public opinion via the questionnaire. But the law doesn't highlight any legal responsibility when the raw data provided by the project owner, including the canvassing of public opinion, were found to be fake," said one of the authors of the open letter, Mao Da, a PhD student at Beijing Normal University, who is an expert in solid-waste management.
The collection of public opinion is one of the weakest aspects of the assessment process, and also the most controversial. The EIA system was proposed in 1979, but not formally legalized until 2002. Public participation in the process was not enshrined in law until 2006.
Wang Qi, head of the Institute of Environmental Engineering Technology at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, said the requirement for public participation in the current Environmental Impact Assessment Law is too simple and imprecise.
He said that despite the claims that the data had been skewed in this case, the general situation has improved over the years. "Nowadays, the level of public support suggested by the final report is usually more than 60 percent. But years ago, the figure was always as high as 90 percent," said Wang. "It must not be too low, though, otherwise it's not possible to move on with the other assessment procedures."
The ministry's reply to the open letter emphasized that a revision of the requirement of public participation is being considered.