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Environmental impact assessment must be made public
REEI 2014/12/10

The commercial hub of Shenzhen in South China’s Guangdong province recently witnessed a second wave of public anger against Xiaping landfill, the largest in the city, because its first environmental impact assessment has yet been made public. According to the latest revision of China’s environmental law in April, the full text of all environmental impact statements should be published for public supervision. 

The local authorities, ignoring mounting public complaints and the environmental watchdog’s stern warning, refuse to publish the report on the landfill, which has literally created a stink in the neighborhood for more than two years. The Shenzhen habitation and environment commission and the urban management authorities have been blaming each other for the “delay”.

Residents allege that the authorities have been citing clumsy excuses to withhold the content of the report from the public to cover up some of their irreversible mistakes.

Many say the Xiaping landfill, which reportedly handles nearly 30 percent of Shenzhen’s household garbage, has not acquired the legal sanction to operate its second phase that started operations two years ago. Even if it passed the environmental test, the two supervisors – the habitation and environment commission and the urban management authorities – cannot deny the stench generated by the landfill. This has led credence to residents’ view that the landfill could face immediate suspension after its environmental impact report, if it really exists, is made public.

Yet halting work at such a giant landfill will create problems for the city’s waste disposal and cause considerable financial loss to its operators. Where will almost one-third of Shenzhen’s daily household refuse be dumped? If left unattended, the garbage will “raise stink” across the city.

A landfill is supposed to bury and recycle rubbish, instead of generating more pollution. In this sense, the Xiaping landfill reflects the failure of the previous technical environmental assessment. It also shows that environmental experts didn’t do their job properly and could be pulled up for their failure.

An environmental impact assessment should serve as legal evidence of the health of a project. But since a negative environmental assessment, flashed in the media, could deal a blow to the reputation and credibility of a project, the Shenzhen authorities are reluctant to make it public.

The lack of public participation in environmental impact assessments is a vital flaw in cases like the Xiaping landfill. In a public project, public supervision and technical assessment are normally separated; the former is conducted by the construction department which is not in charge of environmental impact assessment.

Soliciting public opinions often depends on simply publishing (or posting online) questionnaires, which can hardly guarantee real public participation. In comparison, a public hearing would do a better job of clearing the distrust between the public and environmental department officials.

But neither incineration nor landfills can fundamentally improve the over-burdened garbage disposal systems of many Chinese cities, especially the mega ones such as Beijing, which generates more than 18,000 tons of household garbage a day.

Should the Xiaping landfill’s operation be suspended, the Shenzhen environment bureau would have to relocate it in accordance with public demand and professional advice. More importantly, reducing unnecessary daily waste, which requires an efficient garbage classification and utilization system, remains the key to efficient waste disposal.

For instance, local governments should encourage individual people, as major waste generators, to sort their garbage at source into kitchen waste, and recyclable and non-recyclable wastes. The local governments also have to optimize the use of transportation and disposal methods, and discourage the use and production of use-and-throw products like tableware and excessive packaging.

When it comes to supervision, all environmental impact assessments must be made public, because that is what the law demands. Besides, a legal accountability mechanism should be put in place to deal with cases in which earlier assessments have failed to be incisive and thus made matters worse. And since every step in the waste disposal system is interconnected, governments should seek public opinion and take remedial measures instead of playing hide-and-seek with the people.  

The author is a researcher at Nature University, an environmental protection NGO in Beijing. The article is an excerpt from his interview with China Daily’s reporter Cui Shoufeng.