China: Roadblocks to Effective EIA

By Wang Kai, Li Chunhua 9 June, 2014

The Green Stone Environment Action Network shares its report on Jiangsu’s ineffective EIA assessment process

Disclosure of EIA results is inadequate; full EIA reports should be made publically available
Survey shows only 55.9% of the total respondents saw notices of EIA reports prior approval
Current incentive structures means EIA fraud exists; new law and public involvement should help

Inadequate EIA assessments have been thrown into the spotlight recently with the tightening up of the Environmental Protection Law, which will hold EIA assessors jointly and severally liable with the companies on pollution violations (more on EIA Reform by the MEP here). Chinese NGO, The Green Stone Environment Action Network (Green Stone) gives us an overview of the current EIA system in Jiangsu Province and how it can be improved.

Public participation in the current EIA system in Jiangsu Province is not adequate even though the provincial Environmental Protection Department has issued Opinions on strengthening public participation in the environmental protection of construction projects on 29 October 2012 to encourage public participation.

The disclosed information is not easily accessible by the public and it is still difficult to access the full EIA report. These were the key findings in our report “Difficulties & Opportunities: 2012-2013 Annual Observation Report on Environmental Impact Assessment in Jiangsu Province” issued in October 2013.

As an independent third party, we looked into the public participation situation of the EIA process in 13 prefecture-level cities in Jiangsu province:

  • Time frame: from 1 August 2012 to July 31 2013
  • Cities being assessed: Nanjing, Zhenjiang, Yangzhou, Changzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou, Nantong, Taizhou, Huai’an, Suqian, Yancheng, Xuzhou and Lianyungang

Same EIA polices across 13 cities but information disclosure varied widely

Even though the EIA policies and regulations among these 13 cities are the same, the actual execution among the local environmental protection administration bureaus varied greatly, especially with regards to information disclosure and public participation.

Below are some of the main issues highlighted in the report:

  • EIA Website Disclosure – quality of information disclosure on the websites needs to be improved:
    • Completeness: very limited information; some EIA results after completion and acceptance of the project were not disclosed
    • Compliance: incomplete information; relatively short period of public notice; overlapping notice periods of different EIA stages; inconsistency between the title and content of the public notice
    • User-friendliness: various channels used for public notice but most are not easily accessible; no standardized format for public notice
  • Public Consultation is inadequate;
  • EIA Briefs – some of these lack content and relevant information; and
  • EIA Fraud – include deliberately concealing part of the information and fabricating information about public participation.

Public participation is vital to the EIA process

EIA process involves four major stakeholders:

  • The project construction department;
  • The EIA assessor who writes the EIA report;
  • The environmental protection administrative department; and
  • The general public.

Before the construction project starts, the project developer needs to appoint a qualified EIA institution to conduct the EIA following the regulations. The construction can only be commenced after obtaining the approval from the environmental protection administrative department.

Theoretically, the EIA assessor should act as an independent professional entity in assessing possible environmental impacts of the construction, and proposing mitigation measures. The environment protection administrative department will then decide on whether to approve the construction based on the EIA report.

“For construction projects and planning, public consultation shall be conducted during the EIA process.”

EIA Law, effective since 1 September 2003

The public will be directly affected by any environment impact. Thus it makes sense that they should have the right to supervise the entire EIA process. During both the EIA reporting and review process, the public could participate and express their concerns. Their opinions should be taken into account in the final decision by the government. Its importance has been acknowledged in the EIA Law, which has been effective since 1 September 2003, “For construction projects and planning, public consultation shall be conducted during the EIA process“, as well as the Provisional Measures on Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessments issued in 2006.

However, in reality public participation in the EIA process remains low.

Anonymous survey conducted confirms low public participation

In addition to detailed assessment of the existing EIA system in the 13 cities in Jiangsu Province, we also conducted an online anonymous survey during the period of 8 July – 8 August 2013.

Only 55.9% of the total respondents said that they saw notices of EIA reports prior approval

356 effective questionnaires were received. The result shows that only 55.9% of the total respondents said that they saw notices of EIA reports before EIA approval was given. Amongst these, only 31 people actually participated in the public consultation process of an EIA representing a mere 8.7% of the total respondents.

Taking into account that 33.15% of respondents work in fields related to environmental issues, we could assume that, for general public, actual public participation in any EIA process might be even lower.

Inappropriate incentive structures render the EIA process ineffective

Instead of remaining impartial and independent …

… the main goal of the EIA assessor becomes to help the project obtain EIA approval

In reality, the EIA assessor is usually paid on a commission basis by the project developer. As a result, instead of providing impartial and independent environment impact assessment, the main goal of the EIA assessor becomes helping the project obtain EIA approval.

Some construction projects will pollute the environment, destroy the ecosystem and harm local public interest. However, often due to the pressure to attract investment or lack of capacity, the local government and environmental protection bureaus at the project site, would still approve some of those polluting projects.

Even worse, (due to inconsistent information and lack of public empowerment) public participation essentially the last barrier that ensures the effectiveness and credibility of the EIA, also disappears.

Actions required to remove roadblocks to an effective EIA

Here are some of our suggestions to remove the roadblocks towards a more effective EIA in Jiangsu:

  • Apply the requirements listed in the “Opinions on strengthening public participation in the environmental protection of construction projects” to all the construction projects within Jiangsu Province;
  • Develop more detailed local regulations and provide detailed guidelines of public participation;
  • Unify the format of publishing relevant information before and after EIA review on government websites, and improve information integrity and user-friendliness;
  • Implement pilots of full disclosure of EIA reports; and
  • Establish an online learning platform like Hong Kong to facilitate the education of EIA regulations and knowledge.

About Green Stone Environmental Action Network:

Green Stone Environmental Action Network is a non-profit organization based in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, dedicated to environmental protection that helps student environmental groups to communicate and share information and material resources by means of forums, newsletters, and training camps. Green Stone also carries out various environmental protection activities, such as protecting the rare Chinese swallowtail butterfly and Baiji dolphin, environmental education for children, and helping with sustainable development in rural areas.

Further Reading:

  • Prioritising EIA Reform in China – Fraudulent & substandard EIA reporting persist. How does China’s EIA process compare to the US & HK? We examine the reforms in store for companies & EIA assesors
  • The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
  • MEP Reform: From Mountaintop to Ocean? The MEP is currently regarded as too weak to punish polluters due to dispersed authority & overlapping functions. Given the ‘war on pollution’, is reform to make a Super MEP necessary to improve China’s ‘mountains, water, forest, farmland & lakes’?
  • China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for 2014 With environmental risk cited as one of the top risks most likely to derail economic growth, check out our top 5 trends in water for the year of the Green Horse
  • More Power to Enforcement – Debra Tan gives a run down of upcoming “institutional innovations” discussed at the 2013 Beijing Forum and why the path-of-more-enforcement is still full of “areas of confusion”

Wang Kai
Author: Wang Kai
Wang Kai, officer of the Industrial Pollution Prevention Project at Green Stone Environmental Action Network. He carried out researches on environmental impact assessment for two years and was also involved in corporate environment audits.
Read more from Wang Kai →
Li Chunhua
Author: Li Chunhua
Li Chunhua, acts as the secretary-general of Greenstone Environmental Action Network since June 2009. Her work focuses on environmental information disclosure, environmental impact assessment and green supply chain.
Read more from Li Chunhua →