Lanzhou court to hear water pollution lawsuit

Lawsuit brought against Lanzhou water company claims compensation after benzene ended up in city's water supply in 2014
A Chinese court is hear a case brought against a Lanzhou water company by local residents who claim that supplies are contaminated with benzene, a colourless carcinogen that is used as a raw material in the petrochemical sector.
A court in the northeastern city has agreed to hear the case against Lanzhou Veolia, which is part French-owned, a year after benzene was found in local water supplies and taps to were switched off for days, prompting panic-buying of bottled water.
Under China’s new environmental law, it will be easier for class action lawsuits to be taken against alleged polluters and fines to be enforced, say legal experts, part of central government’s drive to punish those companies responsible for toxic air, soil and water.  
Lanzhou’s authorities took days to declare an end to the emergency and the suit argues that the contamination had a negative impact on health, causing emotional distress and financial costs from stockpiling bottled water.
The five Lanzhou residents are asking the court to order Veolia to repay the costs of bottled water and health checks, and to pay compensation for the duress caused.

According to information released about the incident, benzene levels reached 118-200 microgrammes per litre on April 10 last year – a dozen or more times the permitted level of 10 microgrammes. The gap between the company identifying the high benzene levels and informing the city authorities stretched to 12 hours. It was also a further six hours after that before the city’s water supply was turned off.

Breach of contract

The lawsuit argues that Lanzhou Veolia was knowingly supplying benzene-contaminated water to the city’s residents. And because the sample of water which highlighted the problem was taken on April 2, residents were unwittingly drinking contaminated water for almost ten days.

A lawyer for residents, Wang Zhenyu, told chinadialogue that the municipal water supply is a monopoly, and a contract exists between the residents of the city, including his five clients, and Lanzhou Veolia.

As the supplier of water for the city, the company has a duty to ensure that supply complies with national regulations, he added.

 “If the water coming out of the tap isn’t up to standards, that’s a breach of contract, and the consumer has the right to seek compensation.” Wang Zhenyu added that the incident was a very simple and straightforward case of breach of contract.

Surveys conducted in recent years suggest that up to half of the tapped water in Chinese cities failed to meet standards.

Wang Zhenyu of Beijing Yipai Law said the Lanzhou case would more ordinary people aware of their own rights.

Failings in monitoring

Meanwhile, Wang Zhansheng, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of the Environment, and a member of the expert group that investigated the incident in Lanzhou, said last year’s incident typified poor quality information about domestic water supplies, and failings in monitoring.

Wang Zhansheng added that although an increasing number of water companies are publishing monitoring data online, little trust is placed in those figures, as the companies are in effect regulating themselves. Health authorities should be responsible for checking and releasing data and water quality warnings issued immediately after a problem has been identified, he said.

“Currently if the regulators find a problem, the public aren’t told, they need to wait for the company to tell them. If it hadn’t been for the company announcing the contamination in Lanzhou, nobody would have had a clue,” Wang Zhansheng added.