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Setting the (emissions) record straight

Updated: 2016-09-09
By Zheng Jinran ( China Daily Africa )

Environmental officials have strengthened laws to crack down on companies that falsify or distort pollution data

China is intensifying efforts to clamp down on fake emissions data supplied by companies that ignore national standards and illegally discharge pollutants in pursuit of profits.

On Sept 11 last year, investigators discovered that Gansu COFCO Coca-Cola Beverage Co in Lanzhou had falsified data on treated wastewater by redirecting a sample-collecting pipe from a wastewater pool to a water container, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

 Setting the (emissions) record straight

Li Bin, an official with Beijing's Environmental Monitoring Team, talks about the city's auto-monitoring system to visitors via a screen that displays the locations of major polluting companies. Zou Hong / China Daily

Field monitoring 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 standard.

Although the company's internal investigation found the anomaly was the result of irregularities with the monitoring equipment, the authorities determined that a manager from the company had been forging monitoring data, and ordered that he be detained for five days.

Since 2014, many companies have been found guilty of emissions violations, and last year watchdogs nationwide uncovered problems with emissions monitoring equipment at 2,658 companies.

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

A tough task

The revised Environmental Protection Law, effective since January 2015, as well as other laws on the control of air and water pollution stipulate that major polluting companies should release data on their main pollutants, the methods of discharge, the concentrations of pollutants and the volume of emissions either hourly or daily.

However, the Environment Ministry says many companies have a long way to go to meet the targets.

Two years ago, 14,410 major companies were listed with the national monitoring service, but only 10,270 had automatic monitoring facilities.

The rest keep only daily emissions records compiled by staff members, says Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. He says the pursuit of profits is the main reason many 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 500,000 yuan by reducing investment in monitoring facilities and technologies," he says.

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

"We have a team of only 219 downtown and in the suburbs," says Liu Mingchun, director of environmental protection for Jingzhou, Hubei province. "They're responsible for inspecting more than 1,000 large companies across 14,000 square kilometers, and there are also more than 10,000 small companies that discharge pollutants."

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

Many senior officials with environmental watchdogs 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, the state legislature.

A shortage of inspectors is also 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," says Xiang Weian, head of environmental supervision in Jingzhou.

Technology and law

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

"We immediately send inspectors to companies that trigger warnings to check whether they have excessive emissions levels or if their monitoring facilities are malfunctioning," says Zhao Aihua, head of environmental supervision in Zhijiang, Hubei province. "That makes our targeted inspections more efficient."

Zhou Shuihua, chief engineer with the Hubei Environmental Protection Bureau, urges 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 says.

However, some experts have warned that 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, says she has noticed some provincial platforms release data only 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 adds.

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 says 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.

zhengjinran@chinadaily.com.cn

Setting the (emissions) record straight

(China Daily Africa Weekly 09/09/2016 page28)

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