BEIJING, Aug. 18 (Xinhua) -- Eight firms are being sued for dumping untreated waste in northwest China's Tengger Desert as part of a high-profile public interest litigation filed by a non-profit organization.
The Zhongwei Municipal Intermediate People's Court in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region received the cases filed by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation on Thursday. They said they will respond within seven working days on whether they accept the case.
According to the Supreme People's Procuratorate, several companies in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia, which border the desert, were found to have illegally dumped industrial waste in the desert since 2007.
The companies were shut down and put under investigation last September. Earlier media reports said the contamination threatened groundwater in the area.
After the pollution was exposed it drew the attention of state leaders. Polluters were pursued for criminal liabilities and four officials from the local environmental protection authorities are under investigation for dereliction of duty that caused heavy pollution to the Tengger, which means "sky" in Mongolian, Beijing News reported on Tuesday.
"These firms must shoulder the larger responsibility of damaging public interests," according to a statement from the foundation which filed the case.
It hoped the case would serve as an example of "a typical public interest lawsuit" and a warning for other polluters.
Among the litigation claims, the eight firms were asked to "remove environmental pollution hazards, restore the desert's ecological system or set up special funds or entrust the third party to restore." They were also asked to "compensate the loss of ecological functions" and issue an open apology on national press.
According to the foundation, the restoration work in polluted areas has made little progress, and some firms even coveted public funds to restore the desert, evading their due responsibility. The foundation hopes legal means could force those who polluted to restore or compensate.
Ma Yong, a researcher with the Supreme People's Court, said public interest litigation should serve as a deterrence for polluters, who should face a higher cost for breaking laws.
"Polluters should not only be fined and punished, they should also be legally required to thoroughly restore the environment, which will increase their pollution cost," Ma said.
The revised Environmental Protection Law, which came into effect in January, brought with it heavier punishments.
China's top legislature has been revising laws to make public interest litigation much easier.
Zhu Xiao, a legal expert with the Renmin University of China, said the case would promote public awareness toward environmental protection and public interest litigation, adding that evaluating damage and making restoration plans were the key.
Local governments and experts blamed desert pollution on lax supervision, covert factory locations and a lack of responsibility on behalf of the companies, which were found secretly building pipes to dump the industrial waste water in the desert.
Compared with urban pollution, desert pollution, which is an important part of the ecosystem, is often ignored.