En­vi­ron­men­tal In­spec­tion: Stop­ping the Pol­lu­tion Pipe­line

As China vows to tackle its per­va­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion, the na­tion­wide sys­tem of en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tions has been hailed as a real re­form, although whether it can bring about sys­temic change re­mains to be seen

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Xu Tian

China's new em­pha­sis on en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion is start­ing to pay div­i­dends, af­ter the cen­tral gov­ern­ment acted to curb pol­lu­tion from pri­vate en­ter­prises in 2015. In the 2018 Re­port on the Work of China's Gov­ern­ment, re­leased in early March dur­ing the an­nual two ses­sions, China's top leg­isla­tive meet­ings, Chi­nese Prime Min­is­ter Li Ke­qiang em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of “im­ple­ment­ing cen­tral gov­ern­ment en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion, and strictly in­ves­ti­gat­ing all il­le­gal cases that cause pol­lu­tion.”

With four ma­jor rounds of in­spec­tions in July and Novem­ber 2016, and then in April and Au­gust 2017, all 31 prov­inces and re­gions in China were in­spected. At the end, 29,000 pri­vate en­ter­prises were pe­nal­ized, fines to­tal­ing 1.43 bil­lion yuan (US$22.76M) were levied, 1,527 peo­ple were taken into cus­tody due to vi­o­la­tions of the 2015 En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Law, and 18,199 of­fi­cials were pub­licly named for be­ing re­spon­si­ble.

En­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tions launched by the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion (MEP) in the past had fo­cused on en­ter­prises rather than lo­cal gov­ern­ments, re­sult­ing in in­ef­fi­ciency in tack­ling pol­lu­tion is­sues.

On July 1, 2015, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment “lead­ing group” ded­i­cated to deep­en­ing re­form passed a trial ver­sion of the new En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion In­spec­tion Mea­sures, list­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ments in ar­eas with chronic on­go­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems as pri­mary tar­gets for in­spec­tion. Party and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in each prov­ince or city are held re­spon­si­ble for mis­deeds in this re­gard. In­spec­tion re­sults would be used as a sig­nif­i­cant in­di­ca­tor for the of­fi­cial's job per­for­mance eval­u­a­tion dur­ing his or her of­fice.

In the last two years, prov­inces and re­gions have im­ple­mented or re­vised their eco­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions. In 2018, the sec­ond round of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion will start, with a fo­cus on the re­view process, as well as on as­sist­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ments to es­tab­lish a provin­cial-level en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion sys­tem, which will put in place a long-term, ef­fec­tive sys­tem of en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion.

Tough Ques­tions

The in­spec­tion team nor­mally con­ducts a month-long in­spec­tion within a prov­ince. In 2016, ac­cord­ing to Yu Guodong, Deputy Di­rec­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Bureau of Chongqing Mu­nici-

pal­ity, the fifth in­spec­tion team did not even take week­ends off dur­ing its 30-day stay.

Liu Changgen, se­nior MEP of­fi­cial in charge of China's en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion process, told me­dia that it in­volves three key stages.

First is the provin­cial-level in­spec­tion which lasts around 10 days, mainly tar­get­ing set­ting up talks with provin­cial or re­gional lead­ers to ad­dress en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. Ad­di­tional work in­cludes re­view­ing of­fi­cial files, vis­it­ing en­vi­ron­ment depart­ments and re­ceiv­ing pub­lic pe­ti­tions. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing the in­spec­tion tour to He­bei Prov­ince, 26 provin­cial-level of­fi­cials were in­vited for talks, in­clud­ing the prov­ince's Party sec­re­tary, gov­er­nor, and re­cently re­tired of­fi­cials who were re­spon­si­ble for the le­gacy of pol­lu­tion. Talks in­cluded di­rect and tough ques­tions such as “what are the key en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems in your prov­ince, and who should bear the re­spon­si­bil­ity for them?”

Yu told Newschina dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view that the in­spec­tion team did talk with all key lead­ers from ev­ery as­so­ci­ated depart­ment while they were in Chongqing. “If the team un­cov­ered a prob­lem, they would have a sec­ond round of talks with the of­fi­cial un­til things were cleared up.”

The sec­ond stage takes an­other 10 days at the lo­cal city level. If prob­lems come to light in the first stage, the in­spec­tion team heads straight to the main city in the area iden­ti­fied to dou­ble check the sit­u­a­tion, and if nec­es­sary, de­cides who should be held ac­count­able.

Be­fore the cen­tral in­spec­tion team ar­rives in the re­gion, Liu said, some in­spec­tors would go ahead, ei­ther in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity, or incog­nito, to learn about the sit­u­a­tion and ask for pub­lic in­put. They cre­ate a list of prob­lems and write a man­ual for the in­spec­tion team to use as a ref­er­ence.

Yu said that nor­mally, if lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal au­thor­i­ties re­ceive a com­plaint, the in­spec­tion team is obliged to re­solve it within a des­ig­nated time­frame. In­for­ma­tion about the prob­lem and the so­lu­tion should be pub­licly re­leased. Newschina learned that in the first round of in­spec­tions, 104,000 com­plaints were re­ceived na­tion­wide and by Oc­to­ber 2017, 102,000 com­plaints had been dealt with. Among the to­tal cases, some 80,000 were re­lated to garbage, air pol­lu­tion, noise, pol­lu­tion from firms and sewage dis­charge.

With this in­tense level of su­per­vi­sion, lo­cal gov­ern­ments had to up their re­sponses. Pan Bil­ing, deputy di­rec­tor for the en­vi­ron­men­tal bureau of Hu­nan Prov­ince told Newschina that his prov­ince des­ig­nated six dif­fer­ent teams to re­spond and in­ves­ti­gate com­plaints from the pub­lic dur­ing the cen­tral in­spec­tion team's visit.

The fi­nal stage is ac­count­abil­ity. Within months, the cen­tral in­spec­tion team will re­flect upon and give feed­back on the prob­lems in dif­fer­ent prov­inces. Liu Changgen ex­plained that the in­spec­tion re­port fo­cuses on lay­ing out the prob­lems and defin­ing who should be held ac­count­able. These find­ings have also been made pub­lic.

At a press con­fer­ence held by the MEP in late 2017, the most preva­lent prob­lems dur­ing the first round of in­spec­tions in­cluded air and wa­ter pol­lu­tion, in­suf­fi­cient en­vi­ron­men­tal in­fra­struc­ture, il­le­gal con­struc­tion in na­ture re­serves, over-ex­ploita­tion of wa­ter re­sources, in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion and ru­ral en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment's re­quire­ments, prov­inces must re­spond with ac­tion plans within 30 work­ing days to present to the State Coun­cil, China's cab­i­net. Both the ac­tion plan and the plan to im­ple­ment it must be made pub­lic. The plan is fol­lowed up by giv­ing de­tailed mea­sures, dead­lines and tar­gets, and des­ig­nated of­fi­cials must take charge of putting it into ac­tion.

Lo­cal Party of­fi­cials are re­spon­si­ble for im­ple­ment­ing the plan at the lo­cal level, and should re­port to the provin­cial gov­ern­ment. The suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of the plan is listed as a key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tor for these of­fi­cials.

“The cen­tral en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion in­cludes other sec­tors apart from the en­vi­ron­men­tal depart­ment, so any­one who ne­glects their duty will be pe­nal­ized,” Liu said. The scope cov­ers all lo­cal gov­ern­ments, State-owned en­ter­prises, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, forestry depart­ments and wa­ter depart­ments, as well as the agri­cul­ture, ur­ban plan­ning, trans­porta­tion, pub­lic se­cu­rity and tourism sec­tors, and more be­sides.

Who Is Ac­count­able?

Ac­cord­ing to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment's plan, in 2018, it will as­sist lo­cal gov­ern­ments to set up their own provin­cial en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion sys­tem to en­sure long-term com­pli­ance and out­comes.

Yet, while this in­tense level of en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tions has al­ready be­come rou­tine, there are still many prob­lems in im­ple­men­ta­tion and in achiev­ing the de­sired re­sults.

The key is how to sys­tem­ize the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion ini­tia­tive in a last­ing man­ner. Pan Bil­ing pointed out that con­trol­ling pol­lu­tion can­not be com­pletely achieved through the ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem – in the long term, re­li­able fi­nance and project gov­er­nance is needed. Apart from en­hanced gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment, the pri­vate sec­tor and so­ci­ety in gen­eral must be in­volved. Cur­rently, the heav­i­est pres­sure is on lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal gov­er­nance.

“In many places, se­cur­ing ba­sic liveli­hoods is al­ready dif­fi­cult for lo­cal gov­ern­ments, so how can they earn ex­tra money for en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion? Pres­sure from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment is no good for those places,” said Pan, adding that the gov­ern­ment should give more fi­nan­cial sup­port to im­ple­ment en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion ini­tia­tives. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments are un­der­tak­ing in­dus­trial read­just­ment to lower pol­lu­tion, said Yu Guodong. This re­quires more sup­port and guid­ance to de­velop a lo­cal green econ­omy, with pol­icy sup­port, fi­nan­cial sub­si­dies and other co­or­di­na­tion and plan­ning.

A holis­tic sys­tem to tackle en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems is yet to form. “The en­vi­ron­ment will only be im­proved if the coun­try can make sig­nif­i­cant changes in as­pects such as sys­tem mech­a­nism and fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment,” Pan said.

Work­ers carry out an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­cov­ery project on Xiaozhou Is­land, Hainan Prov­ince, Jan­uary 19, 2018

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