A local court in Changzhou, a city in eastern China, ruled Wednesday that three chemical companies will not have to pay to have the soil restored at their former sites.
After hundreds of teenagers at a prestigious school in Changzhou fell ill, their parents blamed a tract of land near the campus that had once been the location of three chemical factories. Two nongovernmental organizations sued the companies in April.
Parents first complained about pollution and the illnesses they thought it had caused in their children — from skin and respiratory conditions to leukemia — at the end of 2015. Their grievances attracted nationwide attention when state broadcaster CCTV reported on the case in April 2016.
Until about five years ago, the site just opposite the school was occupied by Jiangsu Changlong Chemicals Co. Ltd., Jiangsu Huada Chemical Group Co. Ltd., and Changzhou Chang-Yu Chemical Co. Ltd. All were defendants in the lawsuit.
A survey from 2011 that was included in the verdict documents obtained by Sixth Tone said that the three companies had in total polluted more than 70,000 square meters with heavy metals and organic compounds. Restoration of the site was not completed by the time the school began using its new campus, according to an initial government investigation in April 2016.
The two NGOs, Beijing-based Friends of Nature (FON) and China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), sued the three chemical companies for 370 million yuan (about $54 million) for past and future restoration of the soil, and demanded they take steps to stop polluting their surrounding areas.
But the chemical companies argued that the pollution hasn’t “harmed the public interest,” and said that the only proof the NGOs provided was the media reports. They also said steps had been taken to clear up odors in the air, and that tests had detected no pollutants near the school.
According to the verdict documents, the court believes pollution risks to be under control following soil restoration conducted by the government of Xinbei District, where the school is located. The goal of the lawsuit — to prevent pollution and further damage — is gradually being achieved, the verdict read.
Yang Dan, a communications officer at FON, told Sixth Tone that her organization regrets the verdict. Both NGOs said they will appeal the court’s decision. None of the three defendants could immediately be reached for comment by Sixth Tone.
On Dec. 12, 2016, the two NGOs filed a second lawsuit against the two companies that carried out the initial soil restoration, accusing them of damaging the environment and not implementing necessary safety measures. That lawsuit is still ongoing.
A government report released in April 2014 showed that over 16 percent of China’s soil is polluted, and that the cost to restore it would be in the trillions of yuan. An action plan from the State Council, China’s cabinet, published in May 2016 said the country would aim for more than 95 percent of its arable soil to be safe for use by 2030.
Meanwhile, the school’s parents are disappointed with the verdict and the current situation in general. A mother surnamed Wu told Sixth Tone that when she and others asked the school to relocate to another campus, they received no response. “Nothing changed when the case was receiving a lot of attention, let alone now,” she said.
Additional reporting by Fu Danni. With contributions from Cai Yiwen.
(Header image: Students leave campus after the final bell at Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, April 19, 2016. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)