Final decision taken on the “Changzhou poisonous land” environmental litigation case

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The Jiangsu High People’s Court made a final decision on the “Changzhou poisonous land case” on December 27th, waiving the “sky-high” legal expenses imposed on the two NGOs by the first ruling, and ordering the three companies to publicly apologise for polluting the land.

The “Changzhou poisonous land case” was brought to court in April 2016 by the Friends of Nature Environmental Institute of Chaoyang District, Beijing (known as “Friends of Nature”) and the China Biodiversity Protection and Green Development Foundation (known as the “Green Development Foundation”) against three chemical manufacturers in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, responsible for contaminating land and causing sickness among local residents. In January 2017, the intermediate court ruled that the plaintiffs had lost the case on the grounds that ownership of the land had transferred to the government, and that relevant countermeasures were already being implemented. According to the ruling, not only were the chemical companies exempt from paying for the soil treatment, but the NGOs had to bear a “court acceptance” fee of 1.89 million yuan ($275,000). The two NGOs decided to appeal against the verdict, and the case was reviewed again by the high court on December 19th last year. The final decision was made a week later.

The final verdict confirms that the land polluters should be held accountable for their wrongdoing regardless of the change in land ownership. Although the land is owned by the government now, the companies have to shoulder the responsibility for the harm they have contributed to. However, the court decided that it is beyond the scope of the case to determine how much these companies should pay the current landowner for soil restoration and risk management. What the defendants have to do, according to the verdict, is apologise publicly to the citizenry for the decrease of satisfaction regarding the environment and the anxiety about health issues due to the contamination. Besides, they have to cover the court acceptance fee (100 yuan for each court) and pay the two plaintiffs a total of 460,000 yuan for their legal expenses, including items like the attorneys’ fees and travel reimbursements. As the high court approached the case as a non-property case (非财产案件), the court acceptance fee was calculated by the number of cases, rather than as a proportion of the amount of compensation involved, as was done in the first ruling.

It became possible for Chinese environmental organizations to initiate public interest litigations in 2015, after a revised version of the Environmental Protection Law came into effect. According to the law, this path is open to organizations that are legally registered and have been active for at least five years. The original ruling in the Changzhou case was seen by many as a serious setback, which would discourage other organizations from initiating such lawsuits if upheld.

Although the plaintiffs requests were not fully met, and it is still unclear how much compensation the companies will actually have to pay, some see the final decision as a victory for environmental public interest litigations. The whole case also may have promoted the establishment of a law against soil pollution which was passed last year.