A local court in eastern China has ruled that three chemical plants will not have to pay or apologise for soil contamination near a prestigious school in Changzhou. The case attracted international attention after hundreds of schoolchildren fell ill in 2015.

The two NGOs which filed the lawsuit – Beijing-based NGOs Friends of Nature (FON) and the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) – will be responsible for the 1.89m RMB (HK$2.13m) in legal fees.

Parents protest outside the Changzhou Foreign Language School demanding the relocation of the school campus.
Parents protest outside the Changzhou Foreign Language School demanding the relocation of the school campus. File photo: Twitter/hotspringfollow.

Hundreds of schoolchildren at the Changzhou Foreign Languages School fell ill after being exposed to toxic compounds in 2015. The case received international attention after state broadcaster CCTV reported it in May 2016, exposing the seriousness of soil pollution in China.

Almost 500 students from the school were found to be suffering from ailments including chronic coughs, headaches, blood abnormalities, lymphoma and leukemia after the school moved to its new campus, according to CCTV.

The NGOs sued three companies that were previously located on a site opposite the school – Jiangsu Changlong Chemicals, Jiangsu Huada Chemical Group, and Changzhou Chang-Yu Chemical – for 370 million RMB (HK$417.3m) for soil restoration.

The NGOs said in their complaint that the three companies severely polluted the property and moved away before properly restoring the land. They asked that they take steps to eliminate the effects of pollutants on the surrounding environment and pay for environmental restoration.

Aims ‘gradually being achieved’

According to state-funded outlet Sixth Tone, the defendants argued that the pollution did not harm public interest. They said that the only evidence provided by the NGOs were media reports, that steps were taken to clear up odour in the air, and that no pollutants were detected near the school in tests.

The court ruled that, because the Changzhou municipal government already conducted restoration, the environmental risk is under control, and the goals of the plaintiffs in filing the lawsuit are “gradually being achieved.”

Ge Feng, an advocacy director at Friends of Nature told Hong Kong network i-Cable TV that plans to appeal are underway.

“We are already preparing to appeal, because we think this ruling is wrong. The government is taking some measures, including measures for restoration and risk prevention and control, and enterprises also cannot be absolved of their responsibility for restoration.”

Changzhou Environmental Protection Bureau inspecting the "toxic" land.
Changzhou Environmental Protection Bureau inspecting the “toxic” land. File photo: Weibo.

“The court also determined that these three chemical plants were polluting – severely polluting.”

According to Sixth Tone, a 2011 survey included in the verdict said that the three companies polluted more than 70,000 square metres with heavy metals and organic compounds. A government investigation also found that soil restoration conducted by the Xinbei District government was not completed before the campus started being used.

A second lawsuit filed by the two NGOs against two companies that carried out the initial soil restoration is still ongoing.

China made amendments to its Environmental Protection law in 2014 which was meant to increase public participation, give authorities more power to punish polluters and make it easier for Chinese NGOs to file public interest lawsuits against polluters.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.