Toxic Fallout – Sarah Schafer and Jonathan Ansfield
From The Newsweek: A massive chemical spill in China pits activists and an increasingly aggressive media against the government.
Even before the disaster hit, Hu Fengbin was ready to sue. The Beijing lawyer had long suspected that a petrochemical plant upriver from his home in Harbin was spewing pollution into the river.
When he heard that toxins from an explosion at the plant, owned by a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), had flowed downriver to Harbin, forcing the city to shut down its water supply, he saw his opportunity. Two days after government officials publicly confirmed the contamination, Hu found the perfect client for his case, an irate yet articulate restaurant owner whose business had ground to a halt after the water stoppage. The owner, Li Yanbin, thought she’d take on government officials. But Hu convinced her instead to target the state-owned petrochemical plant because it might be easier to win compensation. “We’ve hated that plant for years,” Hu said, referring to his neighbors in Harbin. “We always thought of it as a time bomb.”
In China, where the ruling Communist Party discourages or outright crushes any attempts at grass-roots movements, environmental protection is one of the only areas of activism that is thriving. Led by an increasingly feisty domestic media, some crusading lawyers and a few maverick bureaucrats, the Chinese are beginning to demand information from corporations and their government about the harmful effects of rapid economic development on the environment. In some cases, the public pressure has worked; in a few cases, even the state agency that regulates the environment has joined sides with environmentalists. Once, after scientists as well as activists argued against a hydropower dam project, the project was ordered suspended by the leadership-an almost unheard of event.