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Apple planning environmental audits of Chinese supply chain

USA Today says it has spoken with Chinese environmental activists that have confirmed Apple will soon bring in independent environmental auditors.

Apple's Chinese supply chain has come under fire over the years for its allegedly poor environmental record. But according to a new report, Apple now plans to address that with independent audits.

Apple is bringing in independent environmental auditors to at least two supplier factories in China, USA Today reported yesterday, citing environmental activists. Speaking to USA Today, Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPEA), said that Apple agreed to the reviews in January and will allow auditors in two facilities, possibly starting in March.

The reviews, Ma told USA Today, will focus on the impact the facilities have on the environment, and whether or not they're contaminating the water supply and soil. The audits might expand to more facilities, Ma said.

Chinese environmental groups have been criticizing Apple for years over its supply chain's environmental impact. Last year, in fact, the company scored last among 29 technology firms in a study conducted by a coalition of 36 Chinese environmental groups for responsiveness to hazardous and unhealthy conditions in factories.

"We originally thought that Apple, as a corporate citizen, would take a leadership role, but now we feel they ended up as the most obstructive," Ma told Bloomberg at the time.

Just months later, a report out of the country claimed 27 suspected Apple suppliers have severe pollution problems involving everything from toxic gases to heavy metal sludge. The IPEA said that one village around a factory that reportedly supplies parts for Apple products has seen a "phenomenal rise in cases of cancer."

For its part, Apple has made it clear that it doesn't own the companies that operate its supplier facilities. The company has also said that it holds itself to the highest standard in environmental responsibility.

"We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made," the company told Reuters last year.

However, Apple in November said that it would conduct audits of 15 of its component supplier facilities to ensure they were upholding safe environmental standards. The company also told Chinese environmental activists that it would engage in more oversight to ensure the surrounding environment is being preserved.

"This is a major step forward," Ma told The Wall Street Journal at the time. "They asked these companies to take corrective plans and give a timeline, and Apple will verify whether all these issues have been resolved."

Apple's environmental audits come just after the company announced that it had called on the Fair Labor Association to audit partner factories in Asia to ensure they have fair working conditions.

"We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we've asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers," Apple CEO Tim Cook said last week in a statement. "The inspections now under way are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports."

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment on its environmental audits.