Ursus urukhai

CC: I’ve always wondered who would win in a fight – a grizzly or a polar bear, but this just blows my mind.

Hybrid bear sightings getting more common in Arctic

BY ED STRUZIK, EDMONTON JOURNAL

When biologists Jodie Pongracz and Evan Richardson flew up to Viscount Melville Sound this spring to capture polar bears, they had expected it to be an adventure.

The bears they were looking for live in an Arctic region so remote and so far north that Inuit hunters only began harvesting them in the 1970s. The number of animals living there is also small compared to what is found in most other polar bear regions of the Arctic.

That’s why they, and Ross Klengenberg, their Inuit field assistant, did a double-take when they saw a grizzly bear in the company of what they thought was a polar bear on the sea ice, hundreds of kilometres north of where grizzlies are normally found on the mainland.

What surprised them even more is that the bear turned out to be a hybrid, a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly.

Although a handful of hybrids and grizzlies have been seen in this part of the world in recent years, Pongracz is still having a tough time fully understanding the significance of what she saw that day. So is scientist Andrew Derocher, her academic supervisor at the University of Alberta.

“We know that grizzlies are in the area, and that local Inuit had seen hybrids, and recently shot two,” says Derocher. “So perhaps it isn’t that surprising. Nonetheless, given the size of the area involved, and the small number of hybrids that exist, I’d say they were extremely fortunate to make such sightings. I’d do back-flips, assuming I could, to see what they saw.”

Until about 20 years ago, sightings of grizzlies in the High Arctic were relatively rare; a quirk of nature, many biologists thought, that may have simply occurred because the bear had strayed too far following mainland caribou that sometimes cross the sea ice to the Arctic islands.

But that thinking began to change in recent years as more grizzlies and a succession of other animals such as red fox, white-tailed deer, Pacific salmon, and killer whales began showing up in areas traditionally occupied by polar bears, Arctic fox, caribou, Arctic char, and beluga whales.

No one seriously thought those grizzlies would eventually mate with polar bears until Roger Kuptana, an Inuit guide from Banks Island, led an American hunter to one in the spring of 2006. The killing of that animal made headlines around the world.

No one knows whether the grizzly and the hybrid seen that day are related, because Pongracz and Richardson weren’t able to collect the genetic material needed to make such a determination.

Pongracz has seen a lot of things in the north since she moved from a small town in Saskatchewan to Kluane National Park in the Yukon, Paulatuk in the central Arctic and Inuvik, where she now works as a biologist for the Northwest Territories government. But this sighting tops a long list of memorable events.

“You know that these hybrids may be out there somewhere, but seeing both a hybrid and a grizzly bear so far north standing right there beside each other on the sea ice, was amazing. I really can’t describe in words what it felt like.”

This is the first year of a three-year study of polar bears in Viscount Melville Sound. The last time this sub-population was surveyed was between 1989 and 1992.

“The sea ice in the Viscount Melville region has changed considerably since then, and in recent summers Viscount Melville Sound has been ice free in late August,” says Pongracz. “Tracking movements of female bears will help us to understand how bears are adapting to their changing sea ice environment.”

If this year is an indication of what Pongracz, Richardson and their Inuit field assistants can expect in the future, then they may be in for a few more surprises.

Two days after they saw the hybrid and grizzly, they saw another grizzly bear 25 kilometres offshore. This one was so fat and healthy that it was probably hunting seals, something that grizzlies on the mainland are not often seen doing, except in one spot near the Smoking Hills along the central Arctic coast.

That, however, was not the only surprise they came home with. A close inspection of photos taken of what was initially thought to be yet another grizzly bear on the north end of Victoria Island may have been a hybrid as well.

“We’ll be keeping our eye out for it, for sure next year when we go out,” says Pongracz. “This study was supposed to be about polar bears, but it may turn out to be more than that.”

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

Polar bear-grizzly cross spotted travelling with a grizzly bear in the High Arctic this spring.

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Sustainable development, not culling, key to reviving caribou populations in Alberta


"The caribou again are in the way."

By Michael Bloomfield, Edmonton Journal

For more than 30 years, Alberta has failed to implement the land-use guidelines necessary to protect declining caribou populations.

As collateral damage in our frenzied pursuit of natural resource revenue, Alberta’s caribou have been brought to the brink of disaster. While we should be furious, we should not be surprised. As Gordon Pitts recently wrote in a column on the shift of economic power west, “When Canadians find stuff in the ground, they take leave of their senses, unleashing contagions of get-rich-quick thinking.”

Now, as we stampede in our quest to become a Pacific power and build a pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast, the caribou again are in the way. This time, if we care, not only for their sake but for ourselves and future generations, we have the power to demand change for the better. Are we ready to forgo a few dollars for a healthier environment?

Let’s make no mistake, habitat loss from logging, mining, oil and gas development and roads has been and continues to be the primary cause of the caribou decline. Wolves, if they contributed at all to the decline, were only significant because caribou were already so vulnerable. Predation has been overemphasized to avoid dealing with the real issues of power and money.

Caribou depend on mature and climax forests, and the cumulative effect of recreational and industrial activities on those forests has been devastating. The destruction of habitat fragmented a once cohesive population which stretched from B.C. through our Rocky Mountain parks into western Alberta. In turn, this fragmentation increased the vulnerability of local bands to disturbance from industrial and recreational activities in breeding, calving, migration corridors and other seasonally important areas.

Mismanagement of hunting caused further damage to already threatened herds.

To once again kill wolves to save caribou is like recycling beer cans in Fort McMurray to deal with greenhouse gases produced by oilsands development.

It’s long past time we developed a serious strategy that provides a sustainable future for us and the environment and includes a well-funded, science-based caribou recovery plan. Our economic footprint doesn’t need to squash caribou to extinction, nor liquidate the inheritance of future generations so we can enrich ourselves now.

So what’s required to achieve recovery and restoration of caribou in Alberta and Western Canada?

First, we must deal comprehensively with all of the issues and involve government, business and the public in development and implementation of the plan. It’s not enough to manage habitat for currently depressed populations and leave them perpetually at risk.

We must provide sufficient habitat to allow recovery to self-sustaining levels. Such action must include protection of migratory routes and seasonally important areas.

Furthermore, there must be a moratorium on new industrial and recreational activity in critical caribou range, coupled with urgent research into the effects of existing industrial activity and motorized recreation on caribou and their habitat. Where necessary, herd augmentation and adaptive management practices should be employed.

Albertans have been blessed with exceptional wealth derived from natural resources. With privilege comes responsibility and Albertans, therefore, have a serious duty to protect caribou and provide adequate habitat for their long term recovery.

After I left Alberta in 1982, I continued to work for the caribou, urging the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada to recognize the woodland caribou as a rare species, something done in 1984. In 2000, the committee designated caribou as a threatened species.

So where are we today? Nearly 25 years of Alberta’s caribou “recovery” process has brought looming disaster. Despite compelling evidence, government continues to risk caribou survival to squeeze a bit more revenue out of Alberta’s wilderness.

In July 2010, the Alberta government updated its report on the status of the woodland caribou. In response to dismal results, the Alberta government ignored the advice of its own scientists and failed to downgrade caribou from threatened to endangered status.

Then in January 2012, federal Environment Minister Peter Kent delivered another blow to caribou survival, deciding not to recommend emergency protection for critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in Alberta.

If those trusted to defend the environment abdicate their responsibilities, it’s in our hands. Either we make it clear to our political and business leaders that we want a more environmentally sustainable approach to development with ample room for caribou and other endangered species, or accept that we are partners in this deadly greed.

You can start by asking candidates in the current election campaign to pledge themselves to action now before the caribou disappear.

“We must save caribou from our deadly greed”

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

Habitat loss from logging, mining, oil and gas development and roads is the primary cause of Alberta's caribou decline. The role of wolves has been overemphasized to avoid dealing with real issues of power and money.

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Giant furry T-rex discovered in China

Saw this article catching up on my Journal readings this morning… CRAZY!

A giant feathered tyrannosaur has been unearthed in China, the largest creature – living or extinct – known to sport a downy coat.

The carnivore, which grew up to nine metres long, likely looked “downright shaggy,” Corwin Sullivan, a Canadian paleontologist on the team that unveiled the creature, said on Wednesday.

Three specimens of the dinosaur, which the scientists have called Yutyrannus huali for “beautiful feathered tyrant,” have been uncovered in north-eastern China.

One was an adult estimated to have weighed 1.414 tonnes, 40 times bigger than any previously found feathered dinosaur. Two juveniles tipped the scales at about half a tonne.

The ancient bones were found by fossil traders and brought to museums where paleon-tologists realized their significance, which is detailed in the journal Nature this week.

The discovery “provides sol-id evidence for the existence of gigantic feathered dinosaurs,” reports the team led by Xu Xing, at Beijing’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

The scientists say the creature did not actually fly, which would have been impossible given its large size – far bigger than the average cow – and the downy structure of its feathers. But they say the feathers may have had an important function as insulation because the creatures lived about 125 mil-lion years ago when global temperatures took a dip.

“The average temperature would have been about 10 C,” says Sullivan, an associate professor at the Beijing paleontology institute.

“That is perhaps not too different from northern China today,” he says, but was an “unusually cool” period in the age of the dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex, which was larger and roamed a warmer world, is not believed to have had any feathers though the researchers don’t rule it out.”It’s possible that some dinosaurs that were even bigger had feathers but we can’t tell one way or the other because most dinosaurs are known only from bones,” Sullivan said from Beijing.

While the feather preservation on the three specimens “is patchy,” the team says the creatures had plenty of long, filamentous feathered plumage.

“They would have looked superficially more like hair than the feathers of modern birds,” says Sullivan, who de-scribes the downy creature as quite a carnivore.

“I wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley,” he says.

The obtaining of specimens from fossil traders is not uncommon in China. But the trade is not without problems.

“Some dealers will yield to the temptation to improve their specimens,” says Sullivan, explaining how they have been known to combine parts from different specimens and species.

But with experience and knowledge of both the fossils beds and the traders “who you are dealing with it is possible to largely avoid those problems,” he says. “So we are quite sure these specimens are authentic.”

Sullivan, who was raised in Ontario and British Columbia, did graduate studies at the University of Toronto and Harvard University before heading to China four years ago where he has been involved in several significant fossils finds.

By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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Taxidermy

The animal is lost from us, has been taken out of us.  I don’t just mean in our city lives.  I also mean in nature.  You go out there, and they’re gone, the ordinary and the unusual, they’re two-thirds gone.  True, in some places you still see them in abundance, but these are sanctuaries and reserves, parks and zoos, special places.  The ordinary mixing with animals is gone.

People object to hunting.  That is not my problem.  Taxidermy does not create a demand; it preserves a result.  Were it not for our efforts, animals that have disappeared from the plains of their natural habitat would also disappear from the plains of our imagination.  Take the quagga, a subspecies of the common zebra, now extinct.  Without the preserved specimens now on display here and there, it would only be a word.

There are five steps in preparing and animal: skinning, curing the hide, preparing the mannequin, fitting the hide onto the mannequin, and finishing.  Each step, if well done, is time-consuming.   Fruitful patience is what separates the amateur from the professional taxidermist.  Much time is spent on the ears, eyes and nose of a mammal so that they are balanced, the eyes not crossed, the nose not bent, the ears not standing unnaturally, the whole giving the animal a coherent expression.  The body of the animal is then given a posture that reflects this expression.

We do not use the word stuffed anymore since it is simply not true.  The animal that meets a taxidermist is no longer stuffed like a bag with moss, spices, tobacco, or whatnot.  Science has shed its practical light on us as it has on every discipline.  The animal is rather “mounted” or “prepared”, and the process is scientific.

Fish are hardly done these days.  That part of the business has died faster than the rest.  The camera can preserve the prize catch quicker and cheaper than the taxidermist, and with the owner standing right next to it, for proof.  The camera has been very bad for the business of taxidermy.  As if the forgotten pages of a photo album were better than a wall holding up the real thing.

We get animals as a result of attrition in zoological gardens.  Hunters and trappers are an obvious source of animals; in this case, the supplier is also the customer.  Some animals are found dead, killed by disease or as a result of an encounter with a predator.  Others are roadkill.  The by-products of food-making supply us with the skins and skeletons of swine, cattle, ostriches, and the like, or with stranger fare from more exotic parts of the world – my okapi, for example.

Skinning an animal must be the taxidermist’s first perfection.  If it is not done well, there will be a price to pay later.  It is like the gathering of evidence for the historian.  Any flaw at this stage may be impossible to fix later on.  If the subcutaneous ends of a bird’s tail feathers are cut, for example, they will be much harder to set in a way that looks natural.  Mind you, the animal might come to the taxidermist already damaged, whether when it was killed by a hunter or by another animal in a zoo or in a collision with a vehicle.  Blood, dirt, and other spoilage can be dealt with, and damaged skin or feathers can, within reason, be repaired, but there are limits to what we can do.  The evidence can be so ruined as to prevent a proper interpretation of the event, to use the language of the historian.

The mannequin, the form upon which the skin will be placed, must be built.  Any number of frames and fillings can be used, and have been used, or better yet, a mannequin can be made from balsa wood.  For more elaborate projects, a mannequin is made of clay on a wire armature, a mould is built around it, perhaps in several pieces, and then a cast of fiberglass or polyurethane resin is made, resulting in a mannequin that is light and strong.

Sewing thread must match the colour of the fur.  The stitching is done close and tight, with care being taken that the amount of skin taken from each side of the stitch line is the same so that the skin is not stretched unevenly.  A figure-eight stitch is used because it brings the edges of the skin together without forming a ridge.  Linen thread, which is strong and does not rot, is the best.

The advantage of retaining the skull of an animal in its mounted version is that it can then be displayed open-mouthed, with its real teeth showing.  Otherwise, on a mannequin head, the mouth must be sewn shut, or an elaborate mouth must be constructed, with artificial gums, teeth, and tongue.  The tongue is the hardest animal part to get right.  No matter the effort we put in, it always looks either too dull or too shiny.  It’s generally not a problem to keep the mouth shut – but what of the snarling tiger or the snapping crocodile, whose mouths are so expressive?

The pose given to the animal, at least the mammal or the bird, is a crucial matter.  Standing straight, skulking, leaping, tense, relaxed, lying on its side, wings out, wings tucked in, and so on – the decision must be made early on since it will affect the making of the mannequin and will play a crucial role in the expressiveness of the animal.  The choice is usually between the theatrical or the neutral, between the animal in action or the animal at rest.  Each choice conveys a different feel, the first of liveliness captured, the second of waiting.  From that, we get two different taxidermic philosophies.  In the first, the liveliness of the animal denies death, claims that time has merely stopped.  In the second, the fact of death is accepted and the animal is simply waiting for time to end.

The difference is immediately grasped between a stiff, glazed-eyed animal that is standing unnaturally and one that looks moist with life and seemingly ready to jump.  Yet that contrast rests on the smallest, most particular details.  The key to taxidermic success is subtle, the result is obvious.

The layout of animals in a habitat setting or diorama is as carefully thought-out as the blocking of actors on a stage.  When done well, when professionals are at work, the effect is powerful, a true glimpse of nature as it was.  Look at the crouch of the animal at the river’s edge, look at the playfulness of the cubs in the grass, see how that gibbon hangs upside down – it’s as if they were alive once again and nothing had happened.

There is no excuse for bad work.  To ruin an animal with shoddy taxidermy is to forfeit the only true canvas we have on which to represent it, and it condemns us to amnesia, ignorance and incomprehension.

There was a time when every good family brightened up its living room with a mounted animal or a case of birds, some representative from the forest that remained in the home while the forest retreated.  That business has all dried up, not only the collecting but the preserving.  Now the living room is likely to be dull and the forest silent.

Is there a level of barbarism involved in taxidermy?  I see none.  Or only if one lives a life entirely sheltered from death in which one never looks into the back room of a butcher shop, or the operating room of a hospital, or the working room of a funeral parlour.  Life and death live and die in exactly the same spot, the body.  It is from there that both babies and cancers are born.  To ignore death, then, is to ignore life.  I no more mind the smell of an animal’s carcass than I do the smell of a field; both are natural and each has its attaching particularity.

And let me repeat; taxidermists do not create a demand.  We merely preserve a result.  I have never hunted in my life and have no interest in the pursuit.  I would never harm an animal.  They are my friends.  When I work on an animal, I work in the knowledge that nothing I do can alter its life, which is past.  What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death.  In that, I am no different from a historian, who parses through the material evidence of the past in an attempt to reconstruct it and then understand it.  Every animal I have mounted has been an interpretation of the past.  I am a historian, dealing with an animal’s past; the zookeeper is a politician, dealing with an animal’s present; and everyone else is a citizen who must decide on that animal’s future.  So you see, we are dealing here with matters so much weightier than what to do with a dusty stuffed duck inherited from an uncle.

I should mention a development of the last few years, what has been called art taxidermy.  Art taxidermists seek not to imitate but to create new, impossible species.  They – that is, the artist directing the taxidermist – attach one part of an animal to another part of another, so the head of a sheep to the body of a dog, or the head of a rabbit to the body of a chicken, or the head of a bull to the body of an ostrich, and so on.  The combinations are endless, often ghoulish, at times disturbing.  I don’t know what they mean to do.  They are no longer exploring animal nature, that is clear.  I think they are rather exploring human nature, often at its most tortured.  I cannot say it is to my taste, it certainly goes against my training, but what of that?  It continues a dialogue with animals, however odd, and must serve the purpose of some people.

Insects are the eternal enemy of taxidermy and have to be exterminated at every stage.  Our other enemies are dust and excessive sunlight.  But the worst enemy of taxidermy, and also of animals, is indifference.  The indifference of the many, combined with the active hatred of the few, has sealed the fate of animals.

I became a taxidermist because of the writer Gustave Flaubert.  It was his story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” that inspired me.  My first animals were a mouse and then a pigeon, the same animals that Julian first kills.  I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been done.  That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness.

Excerpt from Beatrice and Virgil

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Dongbei – First Step

It’s October again!  For those of us in China this is great news because we get a week off for the national holiday (like Canada Day except not in July, eh?).  At this time of year likely over a billion Chinese are traveling all over the country, whether it be a long train ride back to the hometown or a short flight to a touristy attraction in which must be one of the largest mass migrations of people on Earth.

I get set for my own little getaway, but as much as I would have loved to visit the misty peaks of Yellow Mountain, or the limestone karsts of Guilin, I’ve lived learned enough to avoid the hotspots during what they call the Golden Week, when prices everywhere are jacked through the roof and people are packed like canned sardines.

Last year I went for a bicycle adventure at Lake Qinghai, but though  I won’t be cycling through a herd of sheep again anytime soon, I had a rich cultural experience instead.  This year, I’ve decided to lay low and hang out with a friend at his hometown in Shenyang of Liaoning province.  Together with Jilin and Heilongjiang, these three provinces make up the north-eastern region of the country that we expats call by its name in pinyin: Dongbei.

Dongbei – the land of cold, snow, and ice.  A bit like home with a twist of dog meat and dumplings, possibly dog meat dumplings, and large women.  I walk out of the airport the first night and embrace the glorious 4°C weather with hands reaching for the sky.  I had a couple hours to kill before I head to the train station to await my friend’s arrival so I took a cab downtown in search of my favourite Chinese character:  串 .

The better my Chinese gets the more easily amused I am with the pictographic language.  Having lived in Beijing before I have grown peculiarly fond of the word we pronounce chuan’R, and if you see a large red 串 posted outside any restaurants, look forward to a night of local fun.  I skim through the all-Chinese menu looking for words I recognize.  Lamb skewers, beef skewers, chicken skewers.  Fish skewers, mushroom skewers, veggie and potato skewers.  If you get my drift 串 = skewer, see.  Genius, I know right?

For some reason 串 is more a popular pastime in the North and having lived in Shanghai for the past year, I have sorely missed the salty skewers, watery beer, and loud, smoky atmosphere where it seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour to light up, ash, and butt out on the floor.  I match my skewers with 3 large bottles of Snow Flower, a Shenyang brew, and slam’em back thinking, after all, what better way to greet an old university buddy than to greet them half cut?

I am surprised I remember this trip enough to share it, for staying sober in Dongbei seems to be a difficult task.  The second day I tag along with my buddy’s family for a weekend in Donggang, a county-level city at the coast of south-eastern Liaoning near the China-N. Korea border.  We arrive at an insulation materials factory that one my friend’s father’s acquaintances is apparently the owner of and there in the cafeteria I had an enormous meal of fresh seafood with a bunch of middle-aged Chinamen.  I chuckled to myself at the strange resemblance to lunchtime during an audit at work.

I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to consume.  I can honestly say I’ve been quite open-minded about eating in China, but just from looking I was already reluctant to try the seafood and it had been a long time since I had to bust out one of my old theories for survival in China.

 “Rule #2 at the dinner table: if it’s soft you can eat it, if it’s hard then spit it out.  No questions.”

A proportion of the seafood on the table was raw and there was not a pot of boiling soup in sight.  Turns out it’s a local tradition to soak them live in saltwater overnight and eat it with a touch of soy sauce.  I’ve eaten more than a fair share of sushi in my day but to pry open the carapace of a crab that looks like it’s still bubbling at the mouth and drink, yes drink, its innards was news to me.  Knowing not to disrespect, I smile and say it’s delicious, cringing on the inside as I watch another being put onto my plate.

And then came the baijiu.

The foul, colorless poison they call white wine and drink by the litre.  I was told I don’t have to be so polite, so I thought I could relax until I realized that in Dongbei, manners don’t exist in the way that you eat, but in the way that you drink.  When cheers-ing, you have to position your cup slightly lower than the other person’s to show your respect, and when they say ganbei (directly translated as ‘dry cup’, meaning cheers), they really mean it.  Cups of baijiu poured to the brim were being put back like water, and everyone wanted to ganbei the Chinese-Canadian.  We started drinking at about noon and by one o’clock, me, my friend, and a few other particularly adamant drinkers were already at the puking stage.  After lunching and un-lunching, we went fishing for fathead minnows, which were turned into a few excellent tasting dinner dishes including deep fried filet, broth, and of course, more seafood n’ baijiu.

How many of you have been to North Korea?  Ya, me neither, but I got real close.  Later that weekend I was taken on a cruise in a fishing boat near the Yellow Sea and got right up to the North Korean coastguard, who was watching us like a hawk.  The fishermen driving us got the jellyfish they came for, turned around and headed back to shore.  With the cruise concluded the weekend and I breathed a sigh of relief as we prepared to leave the baijiu crew and return to Shenyang, where my friend suggested I crash a wedding but besides that and more 串 , the remainder of my trip was pretty low key.  My friend had described Shenyang as a Chinese Edmonton and I totally agreed.  I took a few photos and went for a little tour of the city, but really not much to see.  I’ll have to look forward to my next trip to Dongbei, when I plan to travel to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province to attend the world-famous snow and ice festival where I shall spend my Christmas Holidays~!!

See also:

Le Tour de Qinghai

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Criticizing the Chinese EIA System

Part Two of Three

Introduction

As much as the international level environmental impact assessment (EIA) for mega-scale development has succeeded in China, it is unfortunate they only account for up to 5% of construction projects.  Although the impacts from the remainder of individual development projects are relatively lower in scale, their sheer numbers is of great concern when considering cumulative effects.  The majority of these projects do not require funding and hence are not bound to the IFC Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability, nor are they likely to follow them as voluntary initiative.  Often this means that the social and health impact assessment, which is a key feature of an international EIA, is ignored altogether.  The environmental industry is a growing field in China and there are many weaknesses to its EIA system such as gaps and flaws in legislation along with minimal enforcement.

Gaps and Flaws

Even though China has greatly expanded their legal regime in the environmental sector during the past few decades, the Chinese EIA system regardless has many gaps and flaws where much improvement is needed.  Weaknesses of the screening process, excessive power of local authorities, political pressure on decision makers, and limited public participation have greatly impeded the performance of the EIA concept in this country.

Weakness of the Screening Process

One way to perform an environmental impact assessment is to establish a set of criteria and compare all potential disturbances with their corresponding standards to determine the significance of an impact.  A multitude of numerical standards constitute Chinese environmental laws hence its EIA system relies heavily on quantifiable measurements.  As mentioned previously in Understanding the Chinese EIA System, there is a screening process that specifies whether an EIA report, form, or registration form is required for a project, and the EIA Law stipulates that only EIA reports and forms must be prepared by licensed institutions or certified professionals.  However, these only cover about 40% of development projects in China, in other words the remaining 60% of projects required to submit EIA registration forms are performed by the project proponents themselves, who may not be professionals in scientific assessment.  Furthermore, the problem with having concrete numerical values for environmental standards becomes evident during this screening process; individuals performing the EIA may be inclined to design construction proposals just within the maximum threshold of a category to avoid more stringent environmental scrutiny from the next level up, which works in favour of both budget and time allocation.

Excessive Power of Local Authorities

The authority to approve an EIA is distributed between the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and local environmental protection bureaus (EPBs).  The MEP is primarily responsible for authorizing special projects like nuclear or military facilities, projects that extend across provinces, and projects involving the State Council; local EPBs have the authority to approve all others.  These remaining projects are distributed between provincial, municipal, and county level EPBs, but in reality the county level government approves the large portion of EIAs, worth more than half the total investment of all projects.  This imbalance of power between approval authorities enables lower level EPBs to develop local policies that may impede or even contradict the EIA law, and can lead to incomprehensive consideration of environmental impacts during assessment.  The establishment of a hierarchical government where higher level EPBs directly supervise lower level EPBs is essential to avoid this problem.

Political Pressure on Decision Makers

Similarly, excessive power of local EPBs may lead to political pressure on approval authorities to pursue economic advancement.  Despite their status as state ministry, the mandates and rules of the MEP are often undermined by ministries of industrial and economic development as well as by local governments.  Common violations of the EIA law include beginning construction before approval of an EIA, some projects are approved to build a hill then they go and build a mountain, others completely ignore the concept of EIA.  This is partly a result of the fact that local EPBs are also in charge of their own hiring processes, which is a problem especially where decisions are made by individual representatives of a government.  In other words, people are being put in difficult dilemmas because of China’s relentless push towards becoming an economic superpower, and forces decision makers to approve a project in fear of losing employment.  For this reason, the first step towards strengthening the EIA Law would be to assign the staffing responsibilities to a third party authority.

Limited Public Participation

In order for EIA to promote sustainable development, it is important to incorporate the concerns of the communities, as public participation forms a large part of the necessary social aspect that makes an international level EIA so effective.  With this communication between the government and the public, environmental decision making becomes transparent thus increasing public support of decisions made.  It also raises public awareness regarding environmental issues that directly affect the people, creating a more opinionated atmosphere during consultation. Public participation must be comprehensive and non-discriminating, meaning everyone regardless of age, gender, or ethnic group should be allowed to participate.  The enactment of the EIA Law in 2003 introduced this opportunity to the public in China for the first time.

Unfortunately, another apparent weakness of the EIA Law is that public participation is only required for developers preparing environmental impact reports; therefore only a small percentage of EIAs have a social component, though a number of changes have been made in effort to address this problem.  The EIA Law does not obligate smaller scale projects to consult the public, but they may be subject to local regulations if the proposed development is to be located at sensitive regions or within vicinity of residential areas.  Moreover, information related to the project is made available for the public to view.  With that said, the consultation is still inefficient for several reasons.  Although information is made readily available, it may be inadequate or even inaccurate, and to date the public never has full access to EIA documents.  Furthermore, the “Three Simultaneities” should be expanded to include not only mitigation measures but in addition public consultation.  This way public opinions and concerns will be assimilated into project design, construction, and operation, but public participation in China is only required for a brief 10 days.

Minimal Enforcement

One of the greatest weaknesses of the Chinese EIA system is its lack of strict enforcement.  Sometimes project components will begin construction and won’t complete an EIA unless they are caught by enforcement authorities.  The most evident problems related to lax enforcement involve high compliance cost, integrity of environmental practitioners, and lack of post-construction monitoring and compliance supervision.

High Compliance Cost

Environmental law enforcement is utterly inadequate in China, which explains why so many developers have ignored regulatory requirements in the past.  Legislation provides that those project developers caught violating the EIA law must suspend construction and prepare a makeup EIA document within a certain time limit.  The penalty for not meeting the time limit is a fine of 200,000 RMB, which is miniscule for many large multi-billionaire corporations.  In other words, it costs more to comply with the law and prepare an entire EIA report than it does to break it, take the penalty, and write a makeup EIA.  Ironically, it may be even easier to obtain approval with a makeup EIA since the project has already been invested in and construction has already begun.  This practice completely disregards the “Three Simultaneities” concept and the principle of conducting EIA is rendered useless.

Integrity of EIA Institutions and Practitioners

In order to maintain a certain level of quality, the EIA Law requires professional consultants and institutions to seek certification from the MEP.  This licensing system was established to ensure the integrity of environmental practitioners, but the EIA market in China is too dependent on and driven by clients’ demands.  Some institutions are more focused on business networking than they are on protecting the environment, and because of this the entire EIA concept has become a mere solemnity.  Past EIA documents have been known to lack scientific support and analysis, and have been submitted without conclusions or mitigation recommendations.  Furthermore, there is evidence of data concealment or fabrication indicating that some institutions are willing to provide false or inaccurate information for the sake of approval.  In other cases, though some EIA institutions may be fully certified with appropriate expertise and resources, they are hired because of their affiliation with local EPBs and developers are reassured with the prospect of approval through internal liaison.

Lack of Post-Construction Monitoring and Compliance Supervision

According to the EIA Law, if pollutant emissions in reality exceed what is stated in the document, then the project developer has to conduct a post-construction EIA, make improvements, and have it reapproved, after which the environmental protection authority is required to inspect the project’s operations.  Moreover, the last portion of the “Three Simultaneities” concept requires that pollution abatement controls must continue to be applied after construction ends and operation begins.  These include environmental monitoring and adherence to mitigation measures suggested in the EIA, but again lack of strict enforcement does not provide strong incentive for project developers to comply.  In some cases, pollution control equipment has never been installed at facilities, or is temporarily installed only during compliance audits when inspectors are present thus reducing costs.  Environmental monitoring is supposed to keep a record of the compliance status of the project during operation, but since compliance audits are so rare a large proportion of enterprises are not implementing pollution reduction strategies and the EIA document is simply shelved away after the approval is made official.

 References:

Moorman, J.L., and G. Zhang.  2007.  Promoting and Strengthening Public Participation in China’s Environmental Impact Assessment Process: Comparing China’s EIA Law and U.S. NEPA.  Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 8: 281-335.

Zhao, Y.  2009.  Assessing the Environmental Impact of Projects: A Critique of the EIA Legal Regime in China.  Natural Resources Journal 49: 485-524.

See also: Part One of Three: Understanding the Chinese EIA System  https://speakupforscience.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/chinaeia1/

Coming soon: Improving the Chinese EIA System

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Understanding the Chinese EIA System

Introduction

As a result of an increasingly large influx of information, lately I’ve been feeling a need to pull my thoughts together so I’ve decided to begin writing a summary of what I’ve learned at the office so far.  As a junior environmental consultant, I am constantly on a steep learning curve and I always feel like I have much to learn.  Currently in the middle of my first year, I am spending a good deal of time on environmental impact assessments (EIA), so today I’ll start with a review of that.  An EIA is an assessment of the positive and negative effects that a proposed project’s development may have on the environment and ensures that project owners have a comprehensive understanding of potential environmental impacts and necessary future commitments in order to make informed decisions before beginning (or not beginning) development.  The methodology for conducting environmental impact assessments varies between countries, but the development of international standards has increased similarities throughout the world.  The general processes of an international level EIA as well as China specific procedures as I understand them are as follows.

EIA in China: A Brief History

Not surprisingly, the concept of environmental impact assessment is relatively new in a developing country and was first introduced here in 1973.  Implementation of the new in China often starts with a slogan: “三同时”, or the “Three Simultaneities” is an important concept stating that environmental mitigation measures must be designed, constructed, and operated simultaneously with new projects in hopes of preventing, controlling and minimizing pollution.  This principle was established just prior to the EIA concept in 1972 and has since become mandatory for all development projects.  In the past few decades, EIA has grown substantially and many improvements have been made to the original system.  In 1982, the Chinese government has expanded EIA legislation to incorporate the marine environment into the assessment.  Furthermore, an EIA licensing system was proposed to ensure the integrity of EIA practitioners which among other amendments inaugurated the enactment of the Environmental Protection Law (EPL) in 1989.  The EPL provided the foundation for a number of statutes in succession including those that address air, noise, water and solid waste pollution, as well as resource conservation, wildlife management, land-use control, and hazardous material disposal.  By the late 1990s, EIA has become a standard prerequisite to development in China and the adoption of the new EIA Law in 2003 in addition to the renaming of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in 2008 as a symbol of rising administrative authority, constitute a few of the major changes that have occurred to EIA since the enurement of its legislation.

Legislative Framework and Approval Processes

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is governed by the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is the highest authoritative power in the country, and the State Council is responsible for implementing the laws enacted by the NPC.  The MEP is one of several State Ministries and regulates development related environmental impacts under the State Council.  In short, a project owner must carry out an EIA which involves the following key steps: screening and scoping, public consultation, report preparation, expert panel review, then submission to and approval by the MEP.  Likewise, all of the above is prepared for a separate EIA that focuses strictly on marine impacts and is then submitted for approval by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA).  After approval and finalization of the EIA, the project may begin construction.  When construction is complete, the project owner must apply for production trial operation, and then must undergo a completion inspection.  The project is evaluated during inspection via environmental monitoring and once the environmental protection measures have been accepted, only then will the completion of construction be approved and official.  Furthermore, before operation begins the owner must also apply for applicable pollution discharge permits.

IFC and Equator Principles

The NPC and State Council have now promulgated many laws and regulations pertinent to environmental impact assessment, but larger-scale projects are often required to adopt relatively more stringent international criteria such as those suggested by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) as well as the Equator Principles.  The IFC is a member of the World Bank Group that promotes sustainable development by funding projects in the private sector provided that they comply with the “IFC Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability”.  Project financing is a type of funding where the lender is repaid through profit generated by large-scale projects such as oil refineries, power plants, chemical processing plants and mines.  The Equator Principles are “a financial industry benchmark for determining, assessing and managing social and environmental risk in project financing” based upon the performance standards set forth by the IFC.  Accompanying each performance standard is a mandatory set of guidance notes that must be followed in order to receive funding, but to the benefit of sustainable development, compliance with the above has now become a voluntary initiative for many projects even for those that do not require funding.

Screening and Scoping

The first step of an EIA in China is to undergo a screening process where the MEP or associated Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs) classify a project into Category A, B, or C based on the impact significance of expected pollution discharges and proximity to sensitive areas such as places of ecological, archaeological or cultural value.  Class ‘A’ projects require a comprehensive EIA and an environmental impact report (EIR) is prepared.  An environmental impact form (EIF) and an environmental impact registration form (EIRF) are prepared for Class ‘B’ and ‘C’ projects, respectively.  After the screening process, if an EIR is required then the developer commissions a licensed agency to prepare an EIA action outline, which is part of a scoping report that highlights the key issues and impacts of the proposed project as well as the baseline (initial) conditions of the environment where development is to take place.  After the scope of the project has been defined then the consulting agency begins the impact assessment.

Public Consultation and Disclosure

One of the most important aspects of a quality environmental impact assessment is to take into account the opinion of the public.  With this in mind, it is good practice to actively involve the public and incorporate their opinions into the design of a project throughout the entire duration of the EIA process.  As stated in the IFC Performance Standards and in the Equator Principles, consultation should be free, prior and informed, and usually takes place in the form of a questionnaire that is distributed to project affected and interested members of the public as a part of the social impact assessment.  Disclosure is also an important aspect of the EIA process, meaning information about decisions made shall be readily available, which is achieved through the release of a non-technical summary in the language of the local community as well as in a culturally appropriate manner.  Similarly, communities will be able to express their concerns about a developer’s environmental and social responsibilities regarding the risks and adverse impacts of a project through the use of a grievance mechanism also accessible throughout the entire duration of the impact assessment.

Preparing the EIR

The bulk of my responsibility involves the preparation of environmental impact reports.  The contents of an EIR must first contain an outline of the currently existing environmental and socioeconomic conditions at the proposed project’s location, and provide a description of the project’s resources, technologies, and processes.  It shall also list all potential pollutants caused by activities during all stages of the project’s development including both construction and operation.  During this portion of the assessment, all impacts caused by air emissions, wastewater, solid and hazardous waste, soil and noise pollution as well as impacts on ecology, social issues such as land acquisition and involuntary resettlement, cultural and archaeological artifacts and human health will be considered.  The next step is a bit beyond my ability, which is to predict changes in base conditions due to impacts caused by the project.  This usually requires the expertise of an environmental engineer and predictive analyses include air emissions modeling among many others.  Where possible, the project induced environmental impacts are quantified and compared to a set of criteria listed in standards, regulations or other requirements, but often impacts are limited to qualitative assessment as is the case for social and ecological impacts.  Another key feature of an EIR is the identification of mitigation measures that must be incorporated into the project’s design.  Once the consulting agency has determined the baseline conditions, predicted and evaluated the impacts, and recommended mitigation measures, all of the above is reviewed by the expert panel then is submitted to the MEP or SOA as a written report for approval, after which trial operation and inspection/monitoring begins.

References:

Chen, Q., Y. Zhang, and A. Ekroos.  2007.  Comparison of China’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law with the European Union (EU) EIA Directive.  Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 132: 53-65.

International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards on Social & Environmental Sustainability.  (April 2006)

The “Equator Principles”.  A financial industry benchmark for determining, assessing and managing social & environmental risk in project financing.  (July 2006)

Coming soon: Criticizing the Chinese EIA System

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