A State-owned chemical company has polluted hundreds of acres of land in a village in Qiqihar, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province through waste dumping
For 16 years, a local farmer has been trying to file a lawsuit against the company
He succeeded in the first trial, and the second trial will rule soon
A chemical plant emits pollution in Qiqihar. Photo: IC
For nearly two decades, Wang Enlin has been fighting the Qiqihar Chemical Group, a State-owned company based in Qiqihar, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province on behalf of his village after the company polluted hundreds of acres of their land.
By teaching himself the law, pushing the government to test for pollutants and collecting evidence, Wang, now in his 60s, successfully brought his community's case to court in January 2015. The Angangxi District People's Court in Qiqihar ruled against the Qiqihar Chemical Group in the first trial, demanding it to pay compensation of 820,000 yuan ($61,095) to 55 households in Yushutun village whose land were polluted.
The firm has appealed the verdict, and their case will be heard by the court.
"We will definitely win. Even if we lose, we'll fight on," Wang said, holding up a copy of the Law of Land Administration.
It was Spring Festival in 2001, and Wang and his fellow villagers were either playing poker or making dumplings at home. Their festive mode was suddenly interrupted, however, when steaming water, which they later found out was industrial waste that had leaked out of a nearby factory run by the Qiqihar Chemical Group, started to flow into their homes. "That Spring Festival was ruined," Wang recalled.
That year, the Qiqihar group boosted its production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a synthetic plastic polymer, to 80,000 tons per year. For each 10,000 tons of PVC it produced, it emitted 15,000 to 20,000 tons of chemical waste. In order to handle this increase in waste, the company started to eye the arable land in Wang's village.
Besides the village houses, that waste flooded over 0.06 hectares of arable land in the village. The China Youth Daily was able to get the minutes of a meeting, where officials from the Angangxi district said the land that was flooded "won't be arable for a long period of time."
These officials, however, made no mention of compensation. Instead, they made an agreement with the chemical group which meant in addition to the land already flooded, it would "lend" another 28.5 hectares of village arable land to the group for it to dump the polluting chemical waste it emits. The term of the lease was 27 years.
Apart from the lease, the Angangxi district's Land and Resources Bureau also issued a certificate for the use of State-owned Land to the company, approving its use of 80 hectares of village land to store waste. This included 30 hectares of arable land and 56 hectares of grassland that the company acquired in 1988 that was used to store sewage. The company set up no anti-permeation measures on this grassland to prevent sewage from seeping into other areas.
"According to the Law of Land Administration, the county government only has the right to approve the use of tracts of arable land smaller than 0.2 hectares. This certificate is therefore illegal," Wang said.
In 2001, Qiqihar's Land and Resources Bureau received an anonymous tip-off about the land lease. This was Wang's first attempt to fight against the Qiqihar Chemical Group. Wang said he wrote all he knew about the situation on a piece of paper, and slipped it into the bureau chief's office under the door. "I dared not sign my name, I feared revenge," he said.
To his surprise, in July 2012, the bureau placed a 300,000-yuan fine on the Qiqihar Chemical Group, and demanded it complete the legal procedures necessary for temporary land use.
But the fine didn't stop the group from using the land to dispose of chemical waste. Fifteen years have passed, and the group still hasn't completed the legal procedures.
The group's contribution to the local government's tax income is the key reason why the local authorities are so lenient. A former employee told the China Youth Daily that the group was a major tax payer in Qiqihar in the 2000s. By 2005, it had been the top tax-paying company for eight consecutive years. In 2004 alone, it paid 134 million yuan in taxes to the government.
"You say your land is polluted by the factory, but do you have any proof?"
When Wang first started to complain to the local government about land pollution, officials often asked him to provide evidence.
Many times, after Wang took his case to the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, it would transfer his case to the provincial government, which would then transfer it to the city, district and ultimately the village government.
"The village officials told me triumphantly that no matter to whom I petitioned the case, it would be up them to handle the case in the end anyway," Wang said.
Wang started to study the law by himself. Dozens of legal books are piled on the small table by his bed, and a well-thumbed copy of the Xinhua Dictionary has turned yellow from use.
In order to obtain evidence of pollution, Wang made many applications to the district, city and provincial environmental protection authorities, asking them to bring equipment to detect and monitor the level of pollutants, but never got a reply.
Wang was indignant. "According to the tenth clause in the Environmental Protection Law, environmental protection authorities above the county level should supervise and manage the environment in their jurisdiction. Why won't you even do a pollution test?"
In April 2014, after a command from the Heilongjiang Environmental Protection Department, Qiqihar's Environmental Monitoring Center finally conducted a test on the water and soil quality in their village. The result shows that the level of mercury was as high as 1.6mg/kg, and the sample had a pH level over 9.2, far above the standard level.
Wang's persistence has made him a local celebrity, and officials in Angangxi district all know that he is trickier to fool than other members of his rural community.
"For people like us, who don't understand the law, government officials can easily bluff us. Even if we feel they're not right, we don't know how to object to what they do. But no one can fool that old man," Wang Baoqin, a fellow villager, told China Youth Daily.
Apart from studying the law by himself, Wang also gained help from the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, an NGO run by the China University of Political Science and Law that offers legal support to pollution victims.
But seeking legal remedies has not been as easy as Wang had imagined. Over the years, Yushutun's arable land gradually shrank from 400 to 266 hectares. The crops that grew in the remaining land looked sick and lifeless, even though farmers used the same seeds and fertilizers. Although there was a considerable reduction in the crop yield of the village's land, the local agricultural authorities refused to provide official proof of this fact that the villagers could use in court. And for eight years, the local court refused to hear their case at all, saying Wang and his villagers cannot qualify as plaintiffs.
"Environmental cases are costly, highly professional, and it's often difficult for victims to provide evidence. This is why there are very few successful civil environmental law suits," Liu Xiang, director of the center's legal department, told China Youth Daily.
The turning point came in 2015. Starting in 2013, issues like the smog plaguing Chinese cities enormously heightened the public's attention to the environment. Two years later, a new Environmental Protection Law, dubbed the toughest one in China's history, became effective.
That year, Wang and his villagers' case was finally heard by a court. Wang, whose hair has grown silver, couldn't help shedding tears.
Although the court of second instance hasn't reached a final verdict, Wang's cause has attracted his fellow villagers. Over the years, over 10 villagers, all above 60 years of age, joined Wang to fight for their rights. In their spare time, they also take turns to inspect the grassland and arable land in the village.
"We're all over 60, and none of us attended middle school, but that doesn't stop us from forming a senior environmental protection team," Wang Baoqin, one of the group members, joked.
Apart from the pollution case, over the years, Wang has helped his fellow villagers win over 10 lawsuits involving illegal land acquisition, using his legal knowledge.