On October 14 Vermont Law School Professor and Technical Advisor to the US-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law Jack Tuholske had the special opportunity to give a presentation on judicial and citizen enforcement of water protection laws to the Environment and Natural Resources Tribunal of the Supreme People’s Court. Ever since China first authorized citizen enforcement of its environmental laws through litigation last year, the Supreme People’s Court has show great interest in developing and standardizing the practice of environmental public interest litigation. Indeed, less than one week after the Environmental Protection Law amendments went into effect on January 1, 2015, the Supreme People’s Court issued a judicial interpretation of the public interest litigation provisions that addressed issues such as standing, jurisdiction, and remedies.
Professor Tuholske’s presentation at the Supreme People’s Court focused on citizen suits under the Clean Water Act. After giving a brief history of the development of environmental laws in the US, Professor Tuholske introduced the theory behind citizen enforcement and some of the advantages it offers with regard to strengthening environmental governance. He then described the most common elements in citizen suit enforcement cases under the Clean Water Act, using one of his prior cases, Northern Plains Resource Council v. Fidelity, as a case study and illustration. The case involved the discharge of coal-bed methane wastewater into the Tongue River in Montana.
After the presentation, Professor Tuholske was joined by Judge Bi Dongsheng, Deputy Chief Justice of the SPC’s Environment and Natural Resources Tribunal for a discussion on some of the topics raised. For example, several SPC judges who were in attendance showed great interest in the bifurcation of the Northern Plains case into liability and remedy stages – a practice which they believed could be useful for courts in China dealing with environmental disputes. Additionally, several people asked questions about the role of settlement and supplemental environmental projects in environmental public interest litigation, which are issues of high importance as the number if environmental public interest cases in China continues to rise.
The Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Supreme People’s Court was established in June 2014 in order to help improve the administration of environmental cases throughout China’s judicial system.