Chinese man becomes first to sue government over severe smog

By Sui-Lee Wee BEIJING (Reuters) - A man in a smog-ridden northern city has become the first person in China to sue the government for failing to curb air pollution, a state-run newspaper reported on Tuesday. China's north is suffering a pollution crisis, with the capital Beijing itself shrouded in acrid smog. Authorities have introduced anti-pollution policies and often pledged to clean up the environment but the problem has not eased. Li Guixin, a resident of Shijiazhuang, capital of the northern province of Hebei, submitted his complaint to a district court asking the city's Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to "perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law", the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily said. He is also seeking compensation from the agency for residents for the choking pollution that has engulfed Shijiazhuang, and much of northern China, this winter. "The reason that I'm proposing administrative compensation is to let every citizen see that amid this haze, we're the real victims," Li was quoted as saying by the newspaper. It was unclear whether the court would accept Li's lawsuit. His lawyer, Wu Yufen, declined to comment, telling Reuters "this information is quite sensitive". Officials of the court could not be reached for comment. Chinese citizens have the right to appeal through legal means and the lawsuit reflects increasing environmental awareness among the public, said Cheng Gang, a chief engineer of the Shijiazhuang environmental protection bureau, according to a state news agency Xinhua report on Tuesday. Li said he had spent money on face masks, an air purifier and a treadmill to get indoor exercise in December when the pollution was particularly severe. "Besides the threat to our health, we've also suffered economic losses, and these losses should be borne by the government and the environmental departments because the government is the recipient of corporate taxes, it is a beneficiary," he said. FACTORIES SUSPENDED The government has invested in clean-air projects and empowered courts to mete out stiff penalties for infringements but enforcement has been patchy at the local level, where authorities often depend on taxes paid by polluting industries. The National Meteorological Center has raised its smog alert for northern and central China, with a heavy haze expected for another two days, state news agency Xinhua said. Beijing has been draped in stinking smog for more than a week and in an effort to cut pollution, 147 industrial companies in the capital had cut or suspended production as of Tuesday, according to Xinhua. City residents are growing angry and alarmed. "Of course, on days where pollution levels reach or even exceed the scale, we are very concerned and we have to see this as a crisis," Bernhard Schwartlander, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative in China, told Reuters. "There's now clear evidence that, in the long term, high levels of air pollution can actually also cause ... lung cancer," he said. Hebei, a major industrial region surrounding Beijing, has some of the most polluted cities in the world's most populous country. Shijiazhuang routinely recorded "beyond index" measurements of polluting "particulate matter" in early 2013. The China Academy of Sciences identified the province as a major source of noxious smog that hung over Beijing a year ago. The government said in an action plan for Hebei in September that it would ban new projects in certain industries, close outdated steel and cement facilities and slash coal use. The province has promised to cut total steel capacity by 86 million tonnes, about 40 percent of last year's production, by 2020. Official data suggests that is starting to happen. (Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan, Natalie Thomas and Paul Carsten; Editing by Mark Heinrich)