On the morning of Apr. 21, MEP held the monthly regular press conference in order to introduce the developments in the nationwide environmental regulation and compliance inspection throughout the year 2016 and in the first quarter of this year. Tian Weiyong, the Ministry’s Director General of the Bureau of Environmental Supervision and Inspection, attended the press conference, released relevant information, and responded to the questions raised by the news presses. Liu Youbin, Counsel with the Department of Communications and Education, moderated the press conference.
CNR: The ongoing large-scale inspection on air pollution control in the “2+26” cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is the country’s largest one on record. My questions are, where are we with the inspection now? What are the main problems found? And how do we make sure these problems get solved?
Tian: You are asking about the yearlong strict inspection targeting the air pollution in the Beijing, Tianjin, and another 26 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. The strict inspection was carried out first throughout February and proved to be somewhat effective for improving regional air quality and attaining air quality goals. In this year’s government work report, Premier Li Keqiang proposed to defend the blue skies, launch thematic campaigns to control pollution in key sectors, monitor all the key industrial pollution sources around the clock and shut down the firms that cannot meet discharge standards.
To this end, the Leading Party Members’ Group decided to wage a yearlong battle to defend the blue skies.
The large-scale inspection started on Apr. 5. On behalf of Minister Chen Jining, Vice Minister Zhai Qing presided over a mobilization meeting. A total of 5,600 inspectors are mobilized from all over the country to carry out 25 rounds of inspection, with eight inspectors touring each of the 28 cities in each round of inspection. The continuity of the inspection is important, so the inspection teams in the previous round will hand over the inspection progress to the next round of teams and make sure the transition is smooth.
For example, today is Apr. 21, two weeks after the official start of the inspection on Apr. 7. The week from Apr. 21 to 28 is a transitional week during which the first team will hand over the inspection to the second team, and half of the first team will stay and provide information on the progress of the inspection, for example, the targets of the inspection, the problems revealed, what problems have been transferred to local governments, what do the local governments do with these problems, etc., so that the second team may take over and start from where the first team have left instead of from the very beginning. The remaining half of the first team will leave on Apr. 28. The handover goes like this until the end of the 25 rounds of inspection.
By 24:00 hours last night, the 28 inspection teams had checked 4,077 firms and found environmental problems in 2,808 of them, accounting for 69 percent of the total. The key targets of the inspection in April are unlicensed polluters, according to the inspection plan. As a result, 763 unlicensed polluters (27%) had been found to be incompliant; 512 firms (18.2%) either did not install pollution control facilities or did not keep their facilities run regularly; 15 firms emitted air pollutants beyond the emission standards, eight firms tempered with the automatic monitoring equipment and provided false data, 687 firms did not take (sound) flying dust control measures, and the remaining firms had other problems. The checklists of problems had been provided to the local governments. There is a checklist for each of the 28 cities. The local governments will be held accountable for not rectifying any problem on schedule.
CCTV: As far as we know, sewage pits are spotted in several places in North China, some of which have been treated years ago, but the treatment has not been effective. What on earth caused the sewage pits, and exactly how harmful are they? Has Ministry of Environmental Protection done any research and found out how many more of such pits are there? Why has the treatment not been effective after so many years? What specific measures are to be taken to solve these problems? Thank you.
Tian: You are asking about a recent concern shared by us all. As soon as the Ministry got the news on Apr. 19, we assembled a working team and rushed to the scene. As soon as we confirmed the news, we made it public through the media outlets, to which we are very grateful, for your supervision.
The sewage pits in Tianjin and Hebei are under full investigation now. We don’t know the causes yet, but it involves at least two violations, first, evading environmental authorities and discharging pollution through seepage pits and wells, no matter what were their causes or how long the discharge has been; second, illegal dumping of the hazardous wastes. From the law-making perspective, the sewage pits and wells were covered by the water pollution control law when the law was being amended, which means there was law regulating such violations as early as 2008. Since 2013, the discharge of pollution through seepage pits and wells constitutes a criminal offence, according to the judicial interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People's Procuratorate. After the environment protection law entered into force in 2015, the five new supplementary measures to the law may be applied on such problems, which suggests the severity of those problems.
The Ministry has paid close attention to the sewage pits and is organizing a national survey. The results will be made public. I’d like to take this opportunity to assure you that MEP will never tolerate such problems. What’s more, we welcome the media and the general public to report such problems on WeChat which we now have 240,000 followers.
Reuters: The sewage pits were originally reported by an NGO based in Chongqing. The local environmental protection departments acted swiftly in response to the news report, a gesture that we applaud. Previous experience suggested local governments may have setbacks during the environmental inspection and enforcement. My question is, how do the governments at all levels view the role of the NGOs and give play to it?
Tian: First of all, about the attitude, we welcome the NGOs, general public, and the media outlets to oversee the environmental problems. You may either expose such problems or report them to the environmental protection departments.
Second, we’d like that the NGOs help solve certain environmental problems. We hope to push for the environmental compliance by industries through the contributions of NGOs, or public benefit litigations.
Liu: I’d like to say more about the NGOs. The Department of Communications and Education is responsible for the work on the NGOs. Not long before, our Ministry and Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a guidance document on guiding the development and standardized management of the environmental NGOs, the first document ever jointly issued by the two ministries, in order to raise the awareness of the environmental protection and civil affairs departments on the importance of environmental NGOs.
Furthermore, we provide training programs on environmental NGOs every year, offer small grants to some of them, and organize regular symposiums as the platform to bring closer the government and the environmental NGOs.
Caixin: Minister Chen Jining found SINOPEC Beijing Yanshan Company did not control the VOCs emission effectively, in an inspection tour dated on Apr. 4. May I ask what specific problems does this company have with VOCs control equipment? Are the problems prevalent in petrochemical companies? What difficulties may encounter in the environmental inspection on VOCs, and how to deal with them?
Tian: In his recent field trip to Yanshan Company, Minister Chen Jining did find the VOCs control problems. For example, three sets of pulp washing and removal equipment in the rubber workshop were deficient, as a result of which the VOCs were not removed and caused secondary pollution. The equipment has been upgraded.
The VOCs control has always been a prominent problem in the petrochemical industry. The workload of the regulatory authorities can be massive. It is very difficult to identify and confirm each of the deficiencies found with Yanshan in over 800,000 prospective places.
The VOCs come from multiple sources, including industrial sources like spraying, painting, packaging, and printing sectors, plus some agricultural sources. The Ministry is about to take the following measures to address this concern: to strengthen the control of VOCs at sources, starting with large VOCs contributors including the petrochemical, organic chemical, and packaging and printing sectors, highlight the control of VOCs in key components of the equipment, improve the enforcement capacity and efficiency, and make greater efforts in information sharing.
Southern Weekly: The inspectors are transferred temporarily from elsewhere of the country to carry out strict inspection in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. Will this move render other places short-handed? A lot of enterprises were inspected in a fortnight. Then does the strict inspection target mainly at enterprises or also urge local governments to take overall responsibility for control of environmental pollution?
Tian: Over 3,000 out of the 5,000 plus inspectors are from the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and the remaining nearly 2,000 are from elsewhere. The borrowed inspectors are recommended by the provincial environmental protection departments for their abundant experience in compliance inspection and they have to be detachment leaders or deputy leaders who will lead the strict inspection teams. The inspectors will be teamed up based on their area of expertise and tasked to inspect related industries and cities. For example, the Zhejiang team and Hangzhou team are composed of inspectors who have rich experience in identifying data frauds. We make this arrangement to crack down on falsification of monitoring data by polluters.
To answer your second question, the strict inspection targets both the enterprises and the governments. The top of the seven major tasks is to urge local governments at all levels especially the county-level governments to complete all tasks for air pollution control in this region, otherwise, they will be held accountable. As for the enterprises, the main targets are elevated pollution sources being monitored online, the pollution control facilities of stationary sources, and the attainment of emission standards for main air pollutants. The unlicensed polluters are inspected as well. The “2+26” cities handed in a list of 56,000 unlicensed polluters at the end of March after self-check, all of which are to be shut down by the end of October.
Also, we ask certain enterprises to halt operations in winter when the heat supply causes heavy air pollution.
The Beijing News: What with the plethora of the unlicensed polluters in this region, how can you be sure that they won’t resume production after the end of the yearlong strict inspection, with the limited number of inspectors available?
Tian: Your question is keen to the point. The strict inspection is not designed to take place of local regulators. The inspection teams locate and transfer the problems to the local governments which will make the problems on the list rectified one by one. The subsequent teams will check if the local governments have corrected the problems transferred by the previous teams.
Besides, we will send tour inspectors from time to time to oversee the rectification progress and check emerging problems. Moreover, the Minister said he will personally lead an inspection team and hold the local government accountable in case of any resurgence of inspected problems.
China Daily: The news releases on the strict inspection are full of reports about the environmental violations by enterprises and their non-cooperation, how do you address this problem? How can you ensure the validity of enforcement, or the personal safety of the inspectors? What are the environmental police in some cities are tasked to do? How do the environmental protection departments collaborate with them?
Tian: The strict inspection has encountered such setbacks as obstruction of inspection, like the case in Jinan and Xingtai, where the inspectors are held up for more than one hour; refusal of inspection when the enterprises shut the gate to the face of inspectors; and even worse, resistance by violence. We treat the setbacks differently, for example, holding the perpetrators in custody for 5~10 days for obstruction of inspection, and imposing a sentence of no more than three years if the circumstance involves violence.
We will mete out punishment accordingly and the growing environmental police force will help us in this process. We transfer the problems to the police departments which will file a case, make further investigations, and take punitive measures.
Beijing Youth Daily: The Guiding Opinions on Piloting the Reform for a Vertical Management Framework for Environmental Monitoring, Supervision, and Enforcement by Environmental Protection Branches under Provincial Level was released by the General Offices of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council last September. Where are we with the reform?
Tian: It is a major plan for the reforms in areas ranging from environmental monitoring, supervision and inspection, to enforcement. The document makes it clear that the environmental enforcement will be an integral part of the government administrative enforcement. It authorizes the inspectors with field inspection powers, administrative enforcement powers, and administrative punishment powers. Also, it makes it clear that the inspectors shall wear uniforms during inspection, which is really exciting news for the environmental protection departments, which have alternated between uniforms and plain clothes. The uniforms make the inspection more formal. Furthermore, the document specifies that the inspectors shall have enforcement vehicles. The inspected enterprises are often sparsely distributed, especially in the vast central and western regions. It is difficult to rush to the scene in case of emergency, so the vehicles are absolutely necessary.
We will map out and implement specific plans in accordance with this document and take the enforcement capacity building up to new levels.
Jiemian News: It has come to our attention that some of the local enterprises operate the environmental protection equipment on the news of inspection and stop it after the inspectors leave. So the Minister went on a local inspection tour unannounced a while ago. Will we give prior notices to the enterprises during the strict inspection? How do we utterly change the passive attitude of the enterprises to meet pollutant standards?
Tian: It has always been a headache for the environmental inspectors to make the constant enterprise compliance possible. The incompliance or excessive pollution emission is prevalent. Statistics show over the past two years since the new environment law entered into force, the percentage of major air polluters which are monitored online and have attained emission standards has increased to 71 percent, from 53.1 percent in the first quarter in 2015. The attainment rate has been on the increase and if factored into the polluters that emitted by 110% of the standard, the rate would have been even higher, from 78 percent to 90 percent, which may be attributed to judicial and administrative measures taken in accordance with the new law.
Especially in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region where the nonattainment rate had dropped from 31 percent at the beginning of last year to 3.79 percent by the end of December, the attainment rate was higher than national average.
Some enterprises evade regulation to cut down operation costs. In response, we monitor the large enterprises with online equipment and launch random inspection on the small ones more often, hence the 25 rounds of strict inspection.
People’s Daily: The enterprises were often found with data fraud in the strict inspection over the past few days and other previous inspections. Are there any ways to address the fraud?
Tian: The data fraud especially by tempering with the online-monitoring equipment at pollution sources has always been one of our close concerns. However, the fraudulent enterprises we found take up a smaller percentage than we thought. For example, eight out of the 2,808 enterprises that have been inspected so far in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region provided false data. The small figure is partly attributed to the difficulty in cracking down on the fraud, which needs expertise and technologies.
The tempering of data occurs at one of the three stages, the sampling, the analysis, and the data upload stages. And the methods have always been creative.
In the next step, first, we will encourage the enterprises to install online monitoring equipment, which is supported by leading technologies in the world and acts as a sentinel to help us find problems in the frontline. So far, more than 10,000 large enterprises have been monitored online by the national monitoring program. Second, we will launch inspections to crack down on the data fraud, and formulate a manual to describe possible data fraud scenarios. Third, we will make public the monitoring data and engage the public supervision.
CNS: The number of environmental incompliance cases reported every quarter has been increasing at a fairly high rate, for example, the caseload went up by 93 percent year on year. What are the causes for the increase, the enterprises’ luck to operate without environmental facility and get away with punishment, or intensifying compliance inspection?
Tian: I wonder whether the environment law enforcement evaluation conducted by China University of Political Science and Law yesterday has raised your attention. The evaluation was objective and fair. Right before that, the Renmin University of China evaluated the implementation situation of four supplementary measures. Last year, Morgan Stanley evaluated the environment law enforcement in China.
The evaluation came to three main conclusions, first, the local Party and government leaders have paid unprecedented attention to the environmental protection; second, the environmental awareness of all walks of life has been raised remarkably; third, the enforcement and compliance of the environment law as well as the resultant influence has been greater than before.
From my point of view, the conclusions can be drawn from the following facts.
First, the application of the law has been more thorough. Since the law entered into force on Jan. 1, 2015, we have carried out enforcement at three stages in three years. This year the specific measures and tools stipulated by the law are implemented on full scale at the county/city/district level. Last year the implementation was mandatory at least at the prefectural level.
Second, all of the five categories of environmental cases have been on the increase. The combined caseload was 22,730 last year, up 93 percent. The growth was even faster in the first quarter this year, up 195 percent year on year.
Third, the rebound rate of environmental violations has been low, 2.86 percent in 2016 and 2.57 percent in 2015.
Fourth, the attainment rate has been on the increase, as I said earlier.
We have further integrated compliance inspection with environmental quality, since low enforcement often leads to bad environmental quality.
Legal Daily: In the evaluation report by Renmin University of China, the enforcement rate of daily penalty accounted for only 40 plus percent, is it true? The number of administrative detentions last year doubled the figure of 2015. How effective is administrative detention? Has this measure played its role? In some cases, the enterprise management sent a staff as scapegoat to do the time, is that true?
Tian: The daily penalty is the least applied measure in the five supplementary measures, only 1,017 applications out of 22,730 cases last year. The local inspectors also raised questions about the daily penalty last year. There is a deficiency in the institutional design of this measure, which was introduced from the U.S. laws. The U.S. daily penalty considers the enterprise that is found with environmental violations in an inspection to have violated laws between this inspection and the last, unless proven otherwise by the enterprise concerned. We made some modifications to the U.S. daily penalty before adopting it in the environment law. The daily penalty can only be applied after an incompliant enterprise failed to make rectifications after being told to. The institutional flaw makes the measure less applicable.
The rebound rate of daily penalty was the highest among the five measures, at 9.81 percent. The figure suggested the measure was not that tough. We will take actions to improve this measure. Administrative detention works the most effectively, with a rebound rate of violation at 1.4 percent.
Administrative detentions are applied to the direct responsible persons and the supervisors. I personally have not been reported on any scapegoat case you mentioned, but I’m certain it’s very possible. The enterprise owner may get away with administrative detention by sending a scapegoat. What we can do is to identify the real culprits. We should also stipulate by law that the enterprise owner shall take a joint and several liability for environmental violations.
The application of administrative detentions needs the collaboration between the environmental protection and police departments. We will make greater efforts to provide evidence for the police department to identify the real culprits.
China Youth Daily: There are about 56,000 unlicensed random polluters in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. Is it worthwhile to mobilize the elite inspectors out of the strict inspection force against the sheer number of polluters? It was reported that Beijing even counted apparel shops as unlicensed polluters. Can you tell us the contribution of the unlicensed polluters to the air pollution in this region? By October the nonattainment enterprises will be closed down. Is the strict inspection worthwhile?
Tian: We were shocked as well by the sheer number reported by local areas on the unlicensed random polluters in this region. The reported number was 56,000 plus and the inspection found another 700 plus. This reflected that there is no unified standard to decide whether an enterprise is unlicensed and pollutes without approval. Some enterprises on the list are ghosts and some others are apparel shops and convenience stores.
The local government should finalize the list of unlicensed polluters and specify which ones should be closed down and which do not attain emission standards. By October, the local governments shall take responsibility if the listed polluters that should be closed are not closed or if any of such polluters is not listed at all and still pollutes the air. To make a list is the first step, and neither a short list nor an unnecessary long list is permitted. We will take this seriously and make sure to make decisive progress in rectifying the unlicensed polluters this year.