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Three chemical companies that polluted the soil in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, were ordered to apologize to the public on China"s national media and pay for the legal and business expenses of the two NGOs that sued them, according to the Jiangsu High People"s Court on Thursday.
In September 2015, about 500 students from the new campus of Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu province fell ill. Some were diagnosed with lymphoma and leukemia. Later, it was found that the school had been built next to a site that had housed the three chemical enterprises before 2010.
In May 2016, the two NGOs－China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Fund and Friends of Nature－filed a public interest lawsuit against the Changlong, Changyu and Huada chemical companies.
In January last year, the Changzhou Intermediate People"s Court confirmed that the three enterprises had dumped toxic chemicals at the site, and polluted the groundwater and soil on land adjacent to the school. But it added that the polluted site had been handed over to the local land reserve center for treatment, and that the local government of Xinbei district had taken over the restoration work, so the companies did not have to pay for cleanup.
On appeal, the Jiangsu High People"s court also rejected requests that the companies pay for eliminating environmental hazards.
Liu Xiang, one of the lawyers of Friends of Nature, said that the local government of Xinbei district only had the right to use the site, which means the government did not inherit responsibility for clearing the pollution.
"Most of the polluted groundwater and soil haven"t been treated," said Liu. "We insisted that the three enterprises should pay 260 million yuan ($38.2 million) to restore the environment."
Huo Zhijian, one of the lawyers of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Fund, said, "We sued them to ask the polluters to fulfill their responsibilities. The government shouldn"t treat the pollution for them using taxpayers" money."
Lawyers for the companies requested that the court exempt them for the expenses of the public interest lawsuit, rather than charging them according to the standards for property-related cases.
Chen Ying, the chief judge hearing the case, said experts had confirmed that the polluted site and its neighboring environment have been effectively restored, and so there is no need for the court to order the three enterprises to do more.
"The restoration work will require a long time," Chen said. "Part of the appellants" request to eliminate the environmental hazards has been realized, and it is highly possible that their request will ultimately be fully realized."
The three companies will pay 460,000 yuan to the two NGOs for their legal and business trip expenses, and court expenses of 200 yuan for the two trials in Changzhou Intermediate Court and Jiangsu High People"s Court.
Some Chinese courts have been encouraging social organizations by exempting them from litigation fees if they lose public interest lawsuits. Polluting enterprises, however, must pay if they lose.