Chinese Court Rejects Lawsuit Over Lanzhou Water Pollution

A Chinese court has rejected a lawsuit filed by five residents against a water supply company in Lanzhou over excessive levels of carcinogenic benzene found in the tap water.

The Lanzhou Intermediate People's Court said the individuals don't meet legal criteria to sue on the public's behalf over pollution under Article 55 of the Civil Procedure Law. The article states that “only agencies and organizations that are stipulated by the law” are allowed to file pollution-related lawsuits. In such cases, only the China Environment Federation under the environmental bureau can file the lawsuit. 

A map of tap water incidents in China in the past few years. (Picture from Sina Weibo)

A map of tap water incidents in China in the past few years. Images from Sina Weibo.

On April 11, the municipal government asked residents not to drink tap water for 24 hours after tests showed benzene levels in the water supply had reached 20 times the national safety limit. The contamination affected more than two million residents.

Lanzhou, an industrial city of 3.6 million people in northwestern China, depends largely on the Yellow River for its water supply. In recent years, this city has seen a wave of investment frenzy as the state rolled out various initiatives to lift the economic standing of the underdeveloped western regions. 

Wang Canfa, an environmental law professor, told Reuters that courts rarely accept lawsuits filed by people exposed to pollution.

Many lawyers think the court rejection itself was unlawful. Professor of Chinese law Xu Xin wrote on popular microblogging site Sina Weibo:


As long as they drank the polluted water, they are direct victims of the case, and the court should accept their complaint. The court is violating the law for not accepting citizens’ civil action. I hope more individuals file the suit. At the same time, I hope the China Environment Federation files public interest litigation.

Netizen “John-Paul” commented:


The rejection is the court’s way to deal with the issue. It's intolerable. The courts tend to ignore certain types of disputes. This flagrant violation of “Civil Procedure Law” is how the courts usually deal with such issues.

Wangyi news pointed out the pitfalls of the law in China:


Most of China's current environmental hazards are caused by the government’s negligence towards the companies’ emissions and leakage accidents. The most typical example is the China Environment Federation, which has monopoly rights on environmental public interest litigation. There is no shortage of emissions polluters among the members of the Federation. When the member companies are involved in environmental pollution cases, it will directly affect the fairness of environmental public interest litigation and trigger doubt about whether these cases can be sued and prosecuted.

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