Polluters might face bigger fines

Updated: 2013-03-02 00:25

By Wu Wencong and Zhao Yinan (China Daily)

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Draft act would remove penalty limit for cases that cause accidents

Experts are suggesting that enterprises that cause accidents related to air pollution pay for all the subsequent economic losses, regardless of the amount.

The upper limit of the fine for causing such accidents has been removed from the draft of the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act's new version, proposed by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The current act says enterprises should be fined less than 50 percent of the losses caused by the pollution-related accidents, with an upper limit of 500,000 yuan ($80,330). This upper limit "shows sympathy and tolerance to those who were responsible for the accidents and deserved to be punished", some experts have said.

Penalty calculations in the draft were changed to 20 to 30 percent of the direct losses caused by the air-pollution accidents, without setting an upper limit.

"This expression can be interpreted as a proposal to set no upper limit for the fine," Chai Fahe, vice-president of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, told China Daily.

But Chai, who participated in writing the draft, added that he does not entirely agree with what the draft says about this issue.

"I think enterprises that cause air-pollution accidents should take full responsibility, paying for all the economic losses they've caused, not the 20 to 30 percent as mentioned in the draft," said Chai.

"Otherwise, who should be held responsible for the other 70 to 80 percent?"

Another highlight of the draft is the newly introduced system of "fining by the day", which sets a daily penalty of 10,000 yuan for those who don't correct the infringement or don't change their illegal behavior even after being fined.

Such penalties wouldn't stop until the illegal behavior ends.

The draft has raised the upper limits of a series of penalties, including the fine for illegally discharging airborne pollutants, from 200,000 yuan to 1 million yuan, and the fine for burning straw or leaves in restricted areas from 200 yuan to 2,000 yuan.

"The current fine for enterprises' illegal emissions is low, sometime even lower than the money the bosses spend on a meal," Chai said.

This has been the second time the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act has been revised since 2000, when it was implemented. A second revision is unusual compared with many other laws in China, some of which haven't changed since the 1980s.

But even if all the suggestions made by the new draft were accepted in the act's new version, the law would still not be labeled as "advanced" compared with other such laws worldwide, experts said.

"The penalty was calculated by day with no cap in the first version of a similar law in California that dates back to the 1970s," said Elaine Chang, deputy executive officer at the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"The enaction of the standards followed only one criteria: people's health standards. Economic factors were taken into account only during the implementation process of the plan, when we set goals for different time periods," Chang said.

"If the exhaust emissions exceed the yearly standard set by the state, we will count it as 365 days," Chang said. "In severe cases, the company's license will be revoked."

Wang Canfa, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said environmental laws should follow some basic principles: health first; allowing no more environmental deterioration; and adhering to the principle that lawbreakers must not benefit from their illegal behavior.

Chai, from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, said the Environmental Protection Ministry has been working on revising the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act since 2008. The first draft was given to the State Council's Legislative Affairs Office in January 2010 but has been there since then.

The air pollution law was first listed in the first category of the top legislative body's agenda in 2008, which means lawmakers were planning to revise it within the five years of their term. The draft, however, has seen little progress since then.

Contact the writers at wuwencong@chinadaily.com.cn and zhaoyinan@chinadaily.com.cn