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A Chinese court has ordered six companies to pay $26 million (160 million renminbi) for discharging acid into two waterways. This is the largest fine for environmental pollution in Chinese history.

According to the New York Times, between January 2012 and February 2013, the companies dumped 25,000 tons of acid into the Rutai Canal and the Gumagan River. Of the companies fined, five – Jiangsu Changlong, Jinhui, Fu’an, Shenlong and Zhenqing – manufacture chemicals. The remaining, Shimeikang, makes pharmaceuticals. All are based in the industrial district of Taizhou in eastern China.

The Times reports that Jiangsu Changlong – a manufacturer of pesticides, herbicides and other agricultural chemicals – has been ordered to pay a little more than half of the full settlement ($13.3 million).

The issue of contamination was first raised when local residents complained about the state of the water. A public interest group, the Tazihou City Environmental Protection Association (TCEPA), was then formed by concerned citizens and eventually filed the lawsuit. In August, the Intermediate People’s Court sentenced 14 people from the polluting companies to prison. Civil lawsuits were then filed by the TCEPA against the companies themselves.

Though the companies appealed the $26 million fine to a higher provincial court, the appeal was rejected on Tuesday, December 30.

This incident is emblematic of China’s growing concern over environmental pollution and the government’s willingness to prosecute environmental offenders. Last April, the Chinese legislature voted to allow larger fines against polluting companies and longer prison terms for individual company members.

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Pollution has become a major problem for the country’s rapidly-industrializing population. In November, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, reported that over 40 percent of the country’s arable land has been degraded by extreme weather, drought and human pollution. Lake Tai, the country’s third-largest lake, is being poisoned by the heavy metal sludge of the 3,000 factories that have been built around it. In Beijing, lung cancer rates have increased more than 50 percent, which has been linked to the massive amount of smog in the city. Nationwide, 670,000 premature deaths have been linked to smog and other environmental particulates since 2012.

A Pew survey shows that Chinese citizens are now more worried about pollution and the environment than the U.S., and the government has taken notice. In September, it announced that it would implement a nationwide cap-and-trade program in 2016. This year, it plans to close over 2,000 coal mines.

Internationally, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a joint pledge with U.S. President Barack Obama to limit and ultimately reduce carbon emissions starting in 2030. Domestically, Prime Minister Li Keqiang has declared a “war against pollution” and promised that the government will “fight it with the same determination we battled poverty.”

“Smog is affecting larger parts of China, and environmental pollution has become a major problem,” Li said during his 2014 work report, “which is nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.”

Mr. Li added that 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces would be shut down in that year and that coal-burning power plants with production capacities under 15 million kilowatts would undergo “desulphurization.” Meanwhile, six million older, high emission vehicles would be removed from the roads and high-quality diesel fuel would be provided nationwide.

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