BEIJING/SHANGHAI China must work more closely with journalists and non-government bodies to expose incidents of water pollution, an official said on Friday, after activists this week discovered two untreated cesspits filled with hazardous industrial waste.
The call for a greater role for non-government organizations (NGOs) in holding polluters to account comes just when China has sought to put such groups under tighter scrutiny, amid a broader push to control civil society and keep a lid on dissent.
The environment ministry and the provincial government of Hebei launched an investigation after a team of volunteers reported the cesspits, which had contaminated farmland in the northern province's Dacheng county.
It was unclear how many similar pits China has, said Tian Weiyong, an official of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), urging the closer cooperation as a way of putting pressure on companies to improve environmental practices.
"We are extremely open to all kinds of NGOs, the public and the media helping to provide oversight, so we can improve our environment," Tian, head of the ministry's monitoring unit, told a news conference to which foreign media were invited for the first time.
Reporting on environmental violations was a form of community service, he said, adding that there were 240,000 followers of the ministry's public account for such reports on popular messaging app WeChat.
"We are particularly keen for NGOs to make the most of their unique capacity and to work on this issue from another perspective, by bringing public interest lawsuits in this area."
The cesspits were uncovered by the Chongqing Two River Volunteer Development Centre, based in southwest China. Its findings were "basically true", the environment ministry said on Wednesday, the same day authorities launched their inquiry.
Full treatment to restore the two sites will cost 38.48 million yuan, or $5.6 million, the Hebei provincial environmental protection agency estimated on Friday.
It said the pits belonged to a brick factory and a fertilizer plant, with arrests made as early as 2013 at both sites, though repeated waste treatment efforts by authorities there had proved unsuccessful.
The environment ministry said it had ordered the nearby cities of Tianjin and Langfang to clean up as many as 18 cesspits in 2014, most caused by the illegal dumping of "acid waste". But the two Dacheng sites are among three in the region that remain untreated, it added.
In its first "environmental census" published in 2010, China identified 5.9 million sources of pollution and 209.8 billion tonnes of accumulated wastewater nationwide. Work on an updated census will wrap up in 2019.
(Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong and David Stanway; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)