On June 6-7, 2016, the US-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) at China University of Politics and Law, and the Beijing Huanzhu Law Firm jointly held a training workshop on environmental public interest litigation for environmental attorneys and civil society organizations in Beijing, China.
The event was designed to provide training and to share lessons learned from decades of citizen-led enforcement of environmental laws in the United States with a select group of leading environmental attorneys and civil society organizations from around China. Citizen enforcement of environmental laws, or “environmental public interest litigation (EPIL),” is a new phenomenon in China. On April 14, 2014 the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress officially approved major revisions to China’s Environmental Protection Law that included many groundbreaking provisions, including the explicit authorization of EPIL for the first time. In a show of support for stronger enforcement of environmental laws, China’s Supreme People’s Court subsequently issued a Judicial Interpretation of the new Environmental Protection Law that further strengthens the ability of Chinese environmental organizations to pursue public interest litigation against polluters. Although the Environmental Protection Law has now been in effect since January 1, 2015, relatively few EPIL cases have been filed, and a limited number of Chinese civil society organization have filed these cases. The US-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law therefore organized this event with its partner organizations in China in order to provide training on the use of EPIL as an effective tool for working toward a cleaner, greener China.
The workshop featured US attorneys hailing from government, the public interest sector, and academia, including: Steve Wolfson, Senior Counsel in the International Law Group of the USEPA’s Office of General Counsel; John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General, Environment and Natural Resources Division, US Department of Justice; Thomas Swegle, Senior Counsel, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Law and Policy Section, US Department of Justice; Patti Goldman, Managing Attorney, Earthjustice; Sarah Burt, Senior Attorney, Earthjustice; and Professor Jack Tuholske, Vermont Law School. The workshop also featured prominent Chinese attorneys and academics including Professor Wang Canfa, Director of CLAPV; Professor Liu Xiang, Director of the Litigation Department at CLAPV; Mr. Zhu Wenhe, CLAPV Attorney; and Ms. Ge Feng, Director of the Legal Advocacy Department at Friends of Nature. Additionally, we were very excited that Liu Jiapu, Deputy Director of the Civil and Administrative Supervision Division of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate was able to join the workshop as well. The workshop participants were lawyers and NGO leaders from all over China – Fujian, Guizhou, Yunnan, etc.
These presenters elucidated a number of issues that are crucial for the successful development and implementation of environmental public interest litigation in China. These include the important factors in identifying good cases, the role of science and expert testimony in EPIL, the various ways in which citizens can cooperate with and support environmental regulators and public prosecutors through EPIL, and the role that settlement of disputes can play in pushing forward stronger environmental protection in China. After all of the presentations and discussions, the workshop broke out into several different groups so that each group could focus on a proposed case and evaluate whether the case was worthy of pursuing through EPIL. This exercise generated a lot of lively discussion about some of the challenges and opportunities that EPIL presents to NGO’s seeking to protect the environment and their own communities’ health.
The development of EPIL as an effective tool to solve some of China’s vexing environmental challenges shows great promise, and we look forward to continuing to support the citizens in China pushing this effort.