Government-backed NGO under pressure to act against China’s largest coal miner

The All-China Environmental Federation can regain public trust by taking legal action against the polluting state-owned energy company Shenhua

The All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF), a government-backed NGO, is being urged to take legal action against the Shenhua group, one of China’s largest energy companies and also a member of the ACEF.

A subsidiary of the Shenhua group in Inner Mongolia has reportedly been discharging industrial wastewater into the Yellow River, threatening the water supply of Baotou City. The extensive report by Greenpeace also revealed that excessive groundwater pumping by a Shenhua group plant has caused a local water source to dry up, causing 5,000 herders to leave their land.

Observers say ACEF has an excellent opportunity to regain public trust by taking action against one of its own members for polluting. The NGO has been accused of seeking to hold a monopoly on the use of environmental public interest litigation (PIL), which has been of particular concern given its close ties with the government. 

It is not the first time that this Shenhua subsidiary has been found violating environmental protection regulations. In January, it was ordered to cease operations and fined 100,000 Yuan for violating the “Treble Simultaneity” principle, which requires the facilities for managing and preventing pollution to be in place before a project is approved.

Shenhua’s activity would “evidently affect downstream water quality“, an unnamed source from the Yellow River Basin Water Resources Protection Bureau told the website 21st Century Business Herald, adding that the company’s discharging activity had not been sanctioned.

Locals believed that the Shenhua subsidiary was responsible for the shortage of agricultural water and the subsequent abandonment of farmland. They also suspect the discharged wastewater is somehow related to an outbreak of brucellosis (a highly infectious disease characterised by muscualr pain and sweating).

Li Gan, a lawyer and editor of the Public Interest Litigation website, said ACEF should file a public interest lawsuit against Shenhua’s polluting activity. “If the ACEF dare to take the initiative, it could, to a certain degree, reduce our distrust,” he said.

The distrust of the ACEF stems from a draft amendment to the current environmental protection law which allegedly authorises only the ACEF and its provincial branches to file environmental public interest lawsuits. The bill is currently receiving its second reading.

This potential legislative monopoly has led to fears of corruption and abuse of power. Half of the respondents in a recent online survey thought the new regulation on environmental public interest litigation was “unreasonable”. Nearly 80% of respondents worried about potential corruption, and another 27% doubted ACEF’s impartiality in cases involving its many members.

The ACEF currently has 255 corporation members, many of which have very problematic environmental records; its income from membership fee is also very high.

Zeng Xiaodong, the secretary general of the ACEF dismissed allegations that the organisation had been bought by polluting companies in a recent interview with Time Weekly. “Who says we take in polluters? If they are making this allegation, they should point out which polluters, where did they pollute and what kind of pollution did they make. We do not take in polluters,” said Zeng.