Beijing’s first orange pollution alert this winter was set at “medium” this morning, with heavy smog forecast to linger in the capital for another three days. In line with smog restrictions, schools have halted outdoor activities, while all construction waste collection vehicles and cement trucks have ceased operation. However, the most likely hope for blue skies will be the cold air from the north that authorities expect will arrive this Sunday.
Fixing air quality isn’t going to occur overnight, but cases involving faked environmental monitoring data by both enterprises and environmental organs are serious obstacles in the way of this goal.
The Chinese Business Gazette reported this October that five officials from the Environmental Protection Bureau of Xi’an, Chang’an District Branch, were allegedly involved in tampering with an air quality monitoring device. The officials included the branch chief, air monitoring station director and deputy director. In February, the station director, surnamed Li, reportedly gained access to the monitoring station and its computer while the station was being relocated. He allegedly asked his staff to enter the station multiple times at night to block the monitoring device using a piece of cotton cloth, effectively putting a “mask” on the very device that was supposed to generate the most accurate data on the area’s air quality.
Sadly, faking monitoring data on air, water or soil pollution is nothing new. Just this year, as of August, over 9,000 cases were discovered by environmental law enforcement agencies at all levels according to the Ministry of Environment Protection.
Just to give few examples, according to the China Youth Daily, this April in Fujian Province, a company named Fuhua Foods was exposed during a spot check of its misconduct. The company had their waste water monitoring probe inserted into a bottle of mineral water in the hope of saving hundreds of thousands RMB on water treatment.
Another case saw Fuping Printing and Dyeing Co. cutting off the circulation of its pollution monitoring system, forcing the machine only to lift samples from its storage tank, in which company workers manually added less polluted water to dilute the result. Secret pipes leading away from sewage are all too common for many enterprises across the country.
It’s one thing when enterprises bribe their local environmental monitoring officials to turn a blind eye, it’s another when the officials themselves try to fake environmental data. Due to the pressure of generating administrative achievements for their year-end review, these officials chose to take shortcuts.
A similar case back in 2015 in Hanzhong City, Shaanxi Province saw water being sprinkled on the air monitoring device on a heavily polluted day inside the local environmental protection bureau. Faced with doubts from the public, staff responded by saying that they were merely cleaning the device, and further argued water wouldn’t interfere with the air quality results.
In fight against environmental data tampering, last year in August, the State Council started the initiative to build a national environmental monitoring network for air, water and soil, making the China National Environmental Monitoring Center (CNEMC) in Beijing to take much of the administrative duties. Data will be automatically collected and transferred to the national center. The ministry reports that all 1,436 air quality monitoring stations’ administrative duties are already transferred to the state as of November, and the network is expected to be complete by 2020.
Since the beginning of this year, the law against such misconduct was also tightened. What used to be punished by fines or administrative penalties is now prosecuted as a crime. The punishments for malpractice of people holding public office is custody (one to less than six months, not exceeding a year for combined charges) and less than three years imprisonment.
Environmental law enforcement agencies have transferred 1,172 cases to public security organs as of this August, a 14 percent rise compared to last year according to Ministry of Environmental Protection. Bureau of Environmental Supervision Chief Tian Weiyong explained that the increase is mainly due to the intensified investigation into environmental related illegal conduct. According to the ministry, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Fujian, Shandong and Henan are the top five provinces where such misconduct has been discovered.
One optimistic way of looking at it is that the pressure is high on air quality treatment across the nation. On September 2013, the State Council released its Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which dictates that by 2017, there should be a 10 percent cutback on the concentration of inhalable particles compared to 2012 in all cities above the prefecture-level. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta areas are further requested to cut this back by 25 percent, 20 percent and 15 percent respectively. Among which, Beijing’s average yearly fine particle matter concentration is to be controlled at 60μg per square meter.
As 2016 is drawing to an end, the coming year will see the environmental protection organs across the country to turn in their answer sheets for one of the most difficult problem sets the nation has ever had.
February next year is the deadline for local environment organs to turn in their reports, while the Ministry of Environmental Protection, along with other related departments such as the National Energy Ministry, are to review and report to the State Council by May. So by mid-2017, we will find out how China is doing overall on its air quality improvements.
Cover image from China Environment News, depicting an environmental emergency response drill in Shanxi