98.Xinhua Insight: Tightened supervision intensifies China's pollution fight
By Xinhua writers Li Laifang & Wang Jian
Air quality in northern China improved Sunday thanks to a cold front. There is no let-up for local authorities, however, as the top environmental watchdog has launched a new round of air quality inspections.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) dispatched 18 teams to Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong, for a one-month review of pollution control efforts.
After visiting 199 local government departments and companies in 18 targeted cities Friday, inspectors found 42 issues, including a lack of reporting by responsible units and district governments in Jinan, the provincial capital of Shandong, the MEP said Saturday.
The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is China's most heavily polluted area and prone to smog in winter.
Inspections have proved effective in pressing local governments and companies to meet their environmental protection obligations, especially since China's revised Environmental Protection Law, considered the strictest in history, took effect in January 2015.
"Central or provincial inspections have been designed to find out and solve urgent environmental problems," said Wang Ande, head of Shandong Provincial Environmental Protection Department.
"Inspectors help to solve problems," said the official, adding that the province still had room for improvement.
To prevent fake data, Shandong has recruited a third party to verify data from the province's automatic air quality monitoring stations.
One tenth of all coal consumption in China is in Shandong, making it first nationwide. In 2015, the province burned 400 million tonnes of coal.
Last year, Shandong issued 590 million yuan (86 million U.S. dollars) in fines for nearly 9,000 environment-related cases, up 75 percent and 28 percent, respectively, from 2015.
Beijing and Linfen, a city in coal-rich Shanxi, both recently established environmental police teams.
Beijing's environmental police have detained two suspects in connection to environmental crimes since the department's inauguration mid-January.
"We also work with the land, resource and water authorities to address illegal mining or misuse of farmland," said Pei Xudong, an official with the environmental police under Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.
Linfen was in the spotlight last month over excessive levels of sulfur dioxide in air on smoggy days in winter. The city's leaders were summoned by the top environment watchdog for answer for their lax protection.
Police in Linfen have promised zero-tolerance of environment-related crimes, according to a leading official with the municipal public security bureau.
Nationwide, other provinces such as Hebei, Liaoning and Guangdong are piloting environmental police.
Police in Shandong handled 671 pollution offenses and arrested more than 1,000 suspects last year, local official data showed.
"The public has increasingly high expectations for improving environment, calling for strict law enforcement," said Wang Canfa, an environmental law researcher at China University of Political Science and Law.
Environmental protection departments, police and procuratorates at different levels should improve coordination, according to a document issued by the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the MEP and the Ministry of Public Security earlier this month.
"Joint law enforcement by environmental authorities and the police will lead to the more effective handling of serious pollution cases," said Fang Li, head of Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.
In an official document on air pollution treatment for the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region from 2016 to 2017, this year's target for the average annual density of PM2.5, unhealthy particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, was set at around 60 micrograms per cubic meter for both Beijing and Tianjin, and about 67 micrograms per cubic meter for Hebei.
Pollution control is a government priority. Beijing plans to spend 18.2 billion yuan on promoting clean energy, phasing out high-polluting old vehicles and factories and other measures to cut pollution. Its PM2.5 density fell by 9.9 percent to 73 micrograms per cubic meter in 2016.
Hebei's target is to achieve a PM2.5 density reduction of at least 6 percent in 2017 after it dropped 9 percent to reach 70 micrograms per cubic meter last year.
Tianjin aims to reduce coal consumption by 2.1 million tonnes through closing or upgrading coal-burning boilers and generators this year.
To cut vehicle exhaust emissions, Tianjin Port, the largest in northern China, will stop receiving diesel truck-transported coal in July. All coal in and out of the port will be carried by rail from the end of September, according to the municipal environmental authorities.
"For complementary development, Tianjin Port will focus on container services while Hebei's ports will develop bulk cargo businesses such as steel and coal in line with environmental standards," Zhao Mingkui, vice president of Tianjin Port, told Xinhua.
Central environmental inspections, which have been carried out in 16 provinces, municipalities or autonomous regions, will cover the rest of the country this year.
Meanwhile, two thirds of provinces or regions have unveiled provincial environmental inspection programs. Shanxi, which conducted provincial environmental inspections of four cities last year, will continue inspecting the remaining seven cities this year.
"We should make good use of the environmental protection inspection mechanisms as a sharp sword in our pollution treatment arsenal," said Wang, the researcher.
In new efforts to boost public monitoring and pollution control, the MEP said this month it would publish the ten best and worst cities for air quality improvement, in addition to the ten cities with good and poor air quality.
"Pollution treatment is a long, uphill battle. We can never slack off -- not even a bit," said Chen Run'er, governor of the central province of Henan....