According to the Director of Green Jiangnan, Mr. Fang Yingjun (方应君), over the past 5 years, the role of Chinese environmental civil society organizations (ECSO) in China’s environmental governance has undergone revolutionary changes. Previously, Chinese ECSOs helped promote environmental protection mainly through environmental education and media disclosure. Now they are actively participating in finding solutions to environmental problems. Reflecting upon their previous accomplishments and lessons, ECSOs are taking increasingly innovative and strategic approaches to engage in environmental pollution remediation and environmental risks prevention. They also serve to promote social stability by efficiently resolving environmental disputes in situations where government engagement may backfire or be counterproductive. This is because ECSOs earn public trust by acting for the public interest and they develop a reputation as independent third-party players. This blog series will introduce different stories of ECSOs across China in order to highlight their evolving role in environmental governance.
Green Jiangnan registered as an ECSO in March 2012 under the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) Civil Affairs Bureau. The organization identifies its role as a critical first-line pollution investigator within the Lake Tai (太湖) watershed, which discovers environmentally compromised areas and then works cooperatively with local Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPB) to solve the pollution violations. The majority of its staff members have environmental science degrees.
[Author’s Note: This article is co-authored by Yu Zhuang and Fang Yingjun. The authors would like to thank Gianna Petito for editing assistance.]
Over the past five years, Green Jiangnan has adopted a slew of different strategies and approaches to tackle pollution of varying scale and character. For example, for pollution cases reported by local communities, where sources are not easily identifiable and impacts are uncertain, Green Jiangnan will conduct site investigations. During these investigations, Green Jiangnan staff will walk the properties to trace and detect hidden illegal point-sources and collect samples for evidence. They then submit these samples for testing, analyze the test results, file open government information requests, and combine this information into comprehensive investigation reports. These reports are typically submitted to different levels of government responsible for environmental enforcement, and Green Jiangnan uses them to communicate community concerns to government entities, and as a baseline against which to monitor enforcement outcomes. Through their professional investigative reports and persistence in helping all the stakeholders solve pollution problems, Green Jiangnan has established its reputation and credibility with local EPBs within the Lake Tai watershed.
In a recent case in Zhangjiagang (张家港) City in Jiangsu Province, local villagers reported river pollution concerns to their village government and local EPB. Facing a lackluster response from authorities, the villagers reported the matter to Green Jiangnan via Green Jiangnan’s public WeChat account. After several trips onsite for field investigation, some of which lasted late into the night, Green Jiangnan eventually discovered two hidden illicit outlets originating from a local glass factory. One outlet was actually a collection of holes in the factory wall along the river, which were covered by weeds and shrubs. According to the villagers, the factory had previously used asphalt as a fuel replacement from coal in order to cut costs. The factory was now discharging huge doses of this asphalt through the holes in the factory walls along the river. The other pollution outlet was a hidden effluent pipe that discharged industrial wastewater into the river. This was particularly concerning since the villagers use the river to irrigate their rice, wheat, grape and vegetable crops. Through interviews and further field investigation, Green Jiangnan pieced together the factory production process, identified key pollutants, and estimated their environmental risks and impact on air surface water, and groundwater quality. They also collected samples and submitted them for scientific testing. Based on all this information, Green Jiangnan drafted a comprehensive investigation report and submitted it, together with video recordings from the site investigations, to different levels of EPBs including the Ministry of Environmental Protection Eastern Region Center for Environmental Protection Inspectors (环保部华东环境保护督查中心), Jiangsu Province EPB, Suzhou City EPB, and Zhangjiagang City EPB.
These efforts were clearly successful because within one week, the local EPB had contacted Green Jiangnan. Within two weeks, the government had started environmental remediation and restoration work along with administrative enforcement actions. The total remediation cost hovered around 10.5 million RMB and the polluting company received an administrative penalty of over 3 million RMB. The local EPB also invited Green Jiangnan to monitor the comprehensive remediation and restoration work while the local glass factory granted access to Green Jiangnan to supervise its rectification and compliance work. During a recent return to the area, Green Jiangnan staff recorded tremendous improvements in river water quality and local villagers have been relocated with compensation from the government. Through this case, Green Jiangnan proved to the local EPB that Green Jiangnan, as an ECSO, is a cooperative and professional supplement to local EPB’s law enforcement rather than a trouble-maker. It also demonstrated to corporations that Green Jiangnan does not want to punish companies but, rather, help them comply with the law and reduce environmental risks in their investments. Despite this collaborative messaging, however, the ECSO reiterates that if a company pollutes the environment, the polluter must pay.
Green Jiangnan not only works with local EPBs and enterprises to find solutions to pollution problems, but also helps local residents and enterprises engage in dialog to clarify environmental concerns and implement public transparency and participation mechanisms. For example, in a recent environmental dispute between local residents and a supply-chain manufacturer of Dell Inc. at Taichang (太仓) City in Jiangsu province, Green Jiangnan organized round-table meetings to bring together the manufacturer and local residents. As a result of the talks, the manufacturer agreed to implement measures to comply with the law and address their pollution impacts. Indeed, through these round-table meetings, Green Jiangnan aims to promote non-confrontational engagement across all stakeholders to negotiate solutions to environmental pollution.
Moreover, by cooperating with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), Green Jiangnan has acquired profound capacity for online monitoring of pollution sources across 6 provinces and 1 city in China’s eastern region and has become more engaged in green supply chain activities. For example, in SIP, many companies contract to manufacture for major international brands. Green Jiangnan staff have now learned to use these contracts as a leverage point; contacting the international brand corporations, who, in turn, threaten to cut contracts with supply chain companies who do not comply with local environmental regulations.
For other minor pollution cases with obvious pollution outlets, Green Jiangnan will call the government-run environmental pollution hotline to report the observations and wait at the site until local EPBs arrive and take action. Sometimes, a single reporting incident does not lead to corrective actions, however, and Green Jiangnan must be more persistent. In one instance, Green Jiangnan staff discovered a factory chimney discharging dark smoke. They reported it to local EPB every time they saw it but it was only after the 20th report that the local EPB finally addressed the illegal discharge.
In closing our conversation, Mr. Fang Yingjun noted that everyone is responsible for environmental protection because it is the shared goal of a whole society. The public should be responsible for environmental supervision and pollution reporting, companies should comply with environmental laws and regulations, and government should enforce the law. Effective environmental governance reflects the balance and exchange of these roles so that all parties can benefit from a healthy and thriving environment.