China / Cover Story

Setting the records straight

By Zheng Jinran (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-18 07:58

Setting the records straight

Li Bin, an official with the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Team, introduces the city's automonitoring system to visitors via a screen that displays the locations of major pollutantdischarging companies in the capital. Zou Hong / China Daily

Environmental authorities have strengthened the laws to crack down on companies that falsify or distort emissions data. Zheng Jinran reports from Wuhan and Beijing.

China is intensifying efforts to fight falsified emissions-monitoring data supplied by companies that ignore national standards and illegally discharge pollutants in pursuit of profits.

On Sept 11 last year, environmental inspectors from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, discovered that Gansu COFCO Coca-Cola Beverage Co had tampered with data related to treated wastewater by redirecting a sample-collection pipe from a wastewater pool to a water container, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said.

Field monitoring by inspectors showed the level of chemical oxygen demand - a major indicator of pollution - in the outlet was 16 times that of the water container, and the actual concentration exceeded the national wastewater standards.

Although the company's internal investigation found that the anomaly was the result of irregularities with the monitoring equipment, the environmental department determined that a manager from the company had been forging monitoring data since Oct 15, and ordered that he be held at a detention center for five days.

Since 2014, a large number of companies have been found guilty of pollutant-emissions violations, and last year environmental watchdogs uncovered problems with emissions-monitoring equipment at 2,658 companies nationwide.

"Environmental-monitoring data are the inspectors' eyes and ears and a crucial element in scientific decisions about environmental protection," said Chen Jining, the minister of environmental protection, when he inspected a monitoring center in Guangdong province on April 15.

A tough task

The revised Environmental Protection Law, which came into effect in January last year, and the laws on control of air and water pollution, stipulate that major pollutant-discharging companies should release information about their main pollutants, the methods of discharge, the concentrations of pollutants and the volume of emissions either hourly or once a day.

Despite that, the environmental ministry said many companies still have a long way to go to meet the targets.

Setting the records straight

Two years ago, 14,410 major companies were listed with the national monitoring service, but only 10,270 have installed auto-monitoring facilities.

The remainder only keep daily emissions records compiled by staff members, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing.

Ma said the pursuit of profits is the main reason that a large number of companies falsify emissions data.

"Some senior officials in charge of environmental protection told me the cost of falsifying the data is very low, around 80 to 100 yuan ($12 to $15). That means they can save half a million yuan by reducing investment in monitoring facilities and technologies," he said.

Moreover, companies that require emissions supervision far outnumber staff members at environmental watchdogs, rendering the authorities powerless.

"We only have a team of 219 in the downtown and suburbs. They are responsible for inspecting more than 1,000 large companies scattered across 14,000 square kilometers, and there are also more than 10,000 small companies that discharge pollutants," said Liu Mingchun, head of the Environmental Protection Bureau in Jingzhou, Hubei province.

In addition, most of the inspectors lack sufficient knowledge to deal with inspections at specialty companies, such as chemical plants, so they find it difficult to uncover falsified data, he said.

Many leaders of environmental watchdogs in the province voiced similar concerns at the Trans-Century Tour of Chinese Environmental Protection in June, an event organized by the Environment and Resources Committee of the National People's Congress.

A shortage of inspectors is common in China's environmental bureaus. In 2014, there were just 6.3 inspectors per 10,000 people nationwide, according to the annual national environmental monitoring bulletin.

"We have to focus on companies that produce significant amounts of emissions, records that contain falsified data or plants with excessive emissions levels," said Xiang Weian, head of the Jingzhou Environmental Supervision Brigade.

Technology and law

Environmental authorities in many cities have built emissions-monitoring platforms, which allow them to check real-time data from companies with high levels of emissions and keep records.

"We immediately send inspectors to companies that trigger warnings to check whether they have excessive emissions levels or if their auto-monitoring facilities are malfunctioning. That makes our targeted inspections more efficient," said Zhao Aihua, head of the Environmental Supervision Brigade in Zhijiang, Hubei.

Zhou Shuihua, chief engineer at the Hubei provincial Environmental Protection Bureau, urged improved use of auto-monitoring platforms to provide hard-pressed inspectors with backup.

"We will give full support to the platform and other technologies, such as portable equipment, and we hope improved technologies will solve the problems caused by staff shortages within three years," he said.

However, some experts have warned that auto-monitoring platforms should be improved to ensure that companies release real-time emissions data.

Ruan Qingyuan, an expert in auto-monitoring facilities at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said she has noticed some provincial platforms only release data for a limited number of days.

"It gives companies time to change their emissions data, which could make the data supplied to monitoring platforms virtually useless," she said.

The central government has revised the laws to better support emissions-monitoring via tougher punishments designed to deter potential polluters.

The Regulation on Identifying and Treating the Falsification of Pollutants Emission Data - which targets violations, and complements the revised Environmental Protection Law - came into effect on Jan 1.

The environmental protection ministry said the new regulations will bolster emissions monitoring by providing a range of administrative punishments, such as denying promotion to officials with poor records, and through legal strictures that mainly target polluting companies.





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