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China plans harsher penalties for environmental damage

Chinese companies which damage the environment will face harsher penalties and be made to compensate for their illegal acts the government has said as it pledges to toughen up anti-pollution laws.

China is to revise both its air pollution protection law and its environmental protection law, Zhang Dejiang, the country's top legislator, said in Beijing.

His statement has renewed hopes in China that the government will secure an update to its 1989 environmental law, following three unsuccessful attempts to tighten up the legislation, Xinhua, the Chinese state's official press agency reported.

Zhang delivered his pledge in an address to the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, of which he is chairman, just days after Chinese Premier Li told the top legislative gathering that he had "declared war" on pollution. Li described smog as "nature's red-light warning" against inefficient and blind development. Among other measures Li promised to close 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces across China this year and introduce cleaning technologies such as desulphurization, denitrification and dust removal at coal-burning power plants.

He also pledged to remove six million old high-emission vehicles from the roads, and introduce cleaner diesel fuel for vehicles nationwide this year. The government will also implement a clean water action plan, do more to protect drinking water sources and prevent and control water pollution in key river basins, as well as carry out land restoration.

Their pledges came as China's current pollution problems hit headlines around the world. Beijing, where the NPC is being held, has been shrouded in smog for several days, with the city experiencing "beyond index" readings of particulate matter at one point, according to the news website China.org.cn. Local reports have blamed the pollution for causing an increased number of people to be admitted to hospital, forcing schools closures and the cancellation of outdoor events. Heavy smog has also been blamed for disrupting air transport and for damaging crop growth. At the end of February, one World Health Organisation representative described the pollution as a "crisis" and the US Embassy in Beijing issued a tweet which said: "440. Hazardous. Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects, please avoid physical exertion and outdoor activities,”, according to the Financial Times.

Zhang told the congress that air, water and soil pollution are of public concern, and stressed that tackling these is an urgent and complex task which demands long-term efforts. He said that by revising the air pollution and environmental protection laws China will be able to tighten control of pollutant discharges, and hand out harsher penalties to those who break the law. He stressed that polluters responsible for environmental damage must be penalised.

His pledge for a tougher stance on pollution is likely to be welcomed by legislators who have tried in vain to see amendments to environmental laws. Three previous attempts to amend the 1989 legislation have been unsuccessful, with some legislators calling for stricter measures and more government obligations.

The NPC Standing Committee will now carry out investigations on how to prevent and control soil pollution, and aim to solve key environmental problems and strengthen ecological conservation, said Zhang.

"We should improve the incorporation of environment impact assessment in approving future projects and invite the public to join environmental assessments to enhance oversight," said Ouyang Song, a member of the NPC Standing Committee. He also urged the authorities to clearly outline the subjects, scope and conditions of accountability in the sphere of environmental protection, in order to further control pollution.

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