China’s central government has been making herculean efforts to improve environmental quality in recent years. Both local governments and enterprises are under extreme pressure to meet environmental protection and rectification goals. Although the results of China’s environmental rectification programs have been positive in some areas and aspects, there have also been less obvious and unintended negative impacts as local governments buckle under the pressure and attempt to find loopholes or illegally circumvent new requirements.
Recently revelations relating to fabrication of environmental quality reports or deliberate manipulation of data and testing equipment have come to light. For example, the Environmental Protection sub-bureaus of two districts in Xi’an City were found to have illegally added extra filtration devices on their air quality sampling equipment to improve their data. 7 staff of the sub-bureaus including the directors were prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment of up to 22 months. Similar occurrences have occurred in numerous provinces nationwide.
To deter similar events going forward and make sure the environmental protection policies are implemented, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) issued a notice recently requiring stricter management over environmental quality monitoring facilities and organizations. The most notable feature of the Notice was the requirement for staff tasked with sampling, analyzing, reviewing, and signing off on data to shoulder lifelong responsibility for the authenticity of the data and associated reports.
The notice also erects higher requirements on the accreditation of monitoring facilities. MEE and the Certification and Accreditation Administration (CNCA) have jointly issued the specific requirements for public consultation and will release the finalized version soon.
The new lifetime accountability clause is no doubt a huge deterrent for any facilities considering manipulating monitoring data going forward. But the policy will only be effective when it’s implemented thoroughly.
For example, in April this year, MEE issued a notice publicizing the names of violators of the environmental protection policies. Notable cases involved Fuhaixin iron and steel company in Tangshan which shut down the online sampling and monitor equipment without any authorization. More bizarrely the reading of the SO2 concentration at Fengyuan advanced material company was a negative number.
As yet no prison sentences have been handed out for these cases and even in the Xi’an case mentioned above, the 7 people involved were penalized for the crime of “destroying the computer system”, instead of other more specific environmental-related crimes.
What also concerns me in this Notice is that it doesn’t specify increased accountability for primary responsible persons in facilities (directors and other senior staff) compared to junior staff. Because the junior staff are more likely under the pressure from the above to force them to manipulate the data.
The improvement of environmental quality in China is going to be a long and complicated process. The government has realized that shutting factories down indiscriminately is an ineffective strategy and is causing excessive negative impact to the economy. It is more efficient to individualize rectification activities and only penalize the problematic enterprises and monitoring facilities and we can expect more of this refined approach going forward.