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China enlists local groups in environmental enforcement push

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Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance Invited to Share US Experience



Paul Gallay addresses Chinese NGO leaders

Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay addresses the East China Regional Citizens’ Suit (“EPIL”) Network.

On October 25, 2015, two Chinese green groups, Friends of Nature and Fujian Green Home, celebrated a victory without precedent in their country’s decades-long rush to industrialize.

Earlier that same year, these groups had gone to court to file a civil action for illegal mining against two businessmen in Fujian province under China’s newly-enacted “Environmental Public Interest Law” (“EPIL”) Program. The program authorizes non-profit organizations to take action in the face of environmental violations if the government doesn’t do so. The Court’s October 25th landmark verdict in the “Nanping” case found the mining company guilty of flagrantly violating the law and ordered the immediate restoration of the affected property, as well as the creation of a separate fund to restore other damaged lands and waters in the region, and the payment of attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiff groups.

Since the Nanping case, Chinese nonprofits have filed over 160 similar “citizen suit” cases against polluters large and small, winning major verdicts, and developing relationships with local prosecutors and community organizations that could presage a flood of additional cases and reverse the trends that have left 70% of China’s Waterways seriously polluted.

But the hoped-for flood of new cases ebbed quickly. After a strong start in 2015, new case filings were way down in 2016 and 2017, as China’s green NGO’s struggled with a lack of resources, poor access to information about violations, and other challenges associated with entering into an area previously reserved only for government prosecutors.

These are problems the Waterkeeper movement knows plenty about and continues to face, fifty years after the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association (which merged with Hudson Riverkeeper in 1986) helped file the very first such case fifty-three years ago to protect Storm King Mountain. 

So, when Waterkeeper Alliance and Riverkeeper were invited by Vermont Law School’s US-Asia Environmental Law Partnership and Duke Kunshan University to share our citizen enforcement experiences at a joint academic/NGO/Government conference designed to ramp up similar cases in China, we jumped at the chance. After all, we have a personal stake in their success: among the 344 waterkeeper organizations that have adopted the original Riverkeeper model are the fifteen members of Waterkeepers China, including our wonderful host for the trip, Qiantang River Waterkeeper Hao Xin.

Paul Gallay in China

Gallay with Chinese NGO leader Huang Chengde, Director of the Guiyang Public Environmental Education Center.

Arriving in Kunshan, we found over 150 Chinese NGO staff, prosecutors, professors and students eager to dive into the work of building a stronger grassroots movement for clean drinking water and healthy river ecosystems. I came armed with stories of precedent-setting cases like Storm King; ExxonMobil/Newtown Creek; Riverkeeper/Waterkeeper v. Pruitt; and Indian Point, to illustrate the wide range of legally-authorized citizen action in the US. If you’d like to learn more about these cases, my presentation can be found here (and here, with Mandarin translations).

While the non-governmental groups in attendance seemed inspired by the cases I presented, they were just as interested in learning more about Riverkeeper’s water quality testing program, given that their own testing and reporting resources remain quite limited (I was told by one chemist that there aren’t five NGOs who could assemble the level of sampling data we gather and report on annually). They were especially interested to know that, not only did our water quality work help set up our enforcement cases, it’s also led to billions in New York State spending on water infrastructure and trendsetting new regulation to attack emerging contaminants.

On the second day of the Kunshan conference, Waterkeeper Alliance’s Organizing Director, Pete Nichols and I addressed a newly-organized coalition of watershed protection NGOs seeking to support and learn from one another as they work to ramp up their case dockets. So, Riverkeeper’s many community partnership-based projects, like the ones that stopped proposals to site crude oil tanker and barge anchorages on the Hudson or build a desalination plant in Rockland County, were of particular interest. 

Finally, Riverkeeper’s generally collaborative/sometimes combative relationship with government seemed to be the one topic of our Chinese NGO colleagues wanted to hear the most about. I explained our hard-fought and carefully cultivated commitment to working side by side with New York State on cases like Indian Point, General Electric PCBs, ExxonMobil/Newtown Creek restoration, while still maintaining the independence necessary to fight NY in court on issues like fracking, pollution from major dairy farms, inadequate stormwater permitting programs and unmet water quality standards in and around New York harbor.

Ultimately, what our brother and sister organizations in China can make of our Hudson River clean water advocacy experiences remains to be seen. The system under which NGOs operate there is so different from our own, as are the government institutions involved. But we and they agree on the keys to success in any system: be data driven; stay true to the grassroots; and, always push back, with all due respect, when you’re told to back off.

The growing international alliance of Waterkeepers may have started on the Hudson River, but the willingness of ordinary citizens to fight for clean water is universal. Supporting that commitment, wherever and however it can, is what the Waterkeeper movement and its hundreds of members worldwide are all about.

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