English > Energy&Environment>Pollution Monitors: Lights, Camera, Inaction

Pollution Monitors: Lights, Camera, Inaction

03-31 16:25 Caijing

China's nationwide, online pollution monitoring system is a technological wonder but not necessarily an environmental remedy.

By staff reporter Yu Dawei

(Caijing Magazine)In the old days, pollution specialists for Taizhou’s Environmental Protection Bureau monitored effluent and emission sources by physically traveling across this Zhejiang Province city, from one site to another.

Today, a high-tech system using closed-circuit video monitors and online computers provides a panoramic view of each of the city’s 93 major pollution sources. It’s part of a larger system of monitors that checks 1,452 pollution sources across Zhejiang Province. It’s also part of a nationwide monitoring network operating since last year – the largest of its kind in the world.


But whether this technological gadgetry has actually improved the nation’s pollution control efforts – and met the lofty goals of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) -- remains to be seen.


Data manipulation is a recurring issue, and legal enforcement mechanisms are weak. Some experts have suggested turning over the monitoring system to an independent operator to prevent collusion between government watchdogs and business interests.


Achieving the Goal


The nationwide monitoring system is one of the key, 24-hour pollution oversight projects for which the central government has allocated 3.4 billion yuan, said Zhang Lijun, MEP vice minister.


The huge outlay marked a positive reversal for environmental protection in China, where government supervisors had long been short of the funds and manpower needed to monitor what’s been the explosive growth of pollution in recent years. Combining the Internet and monitoring technology gave environmental experts an electronic means to compensate for these shortcomings.


MEP’s predecessor, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), first decided to launch a pilot monitoring system in selected cities in November 1999. Two years later, the 10th Five Year Plan for environmental protection issued by SEPA said attention would be given to building online monitoring and advanced programs for pollution treatment at key companies. The goal was a comprehensive network to manage pollution.


SEPA’s plan called for building online monitoring in two phases by 2005, starting with state-controlled enterprises and expanding to enterprises owned by provinces.


Officials missed the deadline. But the goal remained and, in 2007, then-SEPA minister Zhou Shengxian announced a government plan to allocate 2 billion yuan to build systems for indexing, monitoring and evaluating pollution.


The system now in place is the result of the initiative announced by Zhou called Monitoring Methods for Reducing Total Emissions of Major Pollutants. It required installations of automatic monitoring systems at key pollution sources tied to entities under the central government by the end of 2008. All monitoring results were to be networked to provincial environmental agencies and directly transmitted to central government authorities. Local governments were to allocate funds from their budget to collect pollution reduction statistics, as well as for monitoring and evaluations. 


Difficult Transition


The network replaced a chaotic monitoring system that had neither clear policies nor regulations. Polluters were given a set period of time to install the automatic monitors. The new system also clarified lines of responsibility for installing, operating and maintaining monitoring equipment.


The transition was bumpy. Problems arose in areas such as operations, quality standards, installation, management and servicing. Another problem area was data distortion, since most of the information processing and analyses were – and still are -- handled manually.


In 2005, SEPA issued a guideline to regulate the use and management of the monitoring system. However, the rules have failed to be fully implemented as a legal enforcement mechanism for polluting enterprises, said He Jiaping, a research official on the Environmental and Resources Protection Committee under the National People’s Congress. He said hands are tied at SEPA due to discrepancies between what appears through monitoring and the actual situation.


Indeed, the monitoring system is merely an “auxiliary” method that, at least for now, cannot be used to collect evidence for legal enforcement, said Xu Lu, an official in charge of pollution inspection in Zhengjiang Provincial government.


Next Step


To eliminate all possibility of fraud, some experts such as Wei Fusheng, an engineering fellow at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, have suggested that a third party operate and manage the monitoring system. He said such a change would ease the regulatory burden of government environmental protection departments and improve supervisory efficiency.


Wei’s idea has been well-received. But experts also say it would not be easy to entrust all monitoring to a third party quickly. What’s more, most qualified third parties are subordinate enterprises of the environmental protection systems, and it’s uncertain whether these could avoid being entangled in special interests and shoulder supervisory responsibility.


Yet another suggestion for controlling pollution has nothing to do with online monitoring, but would be based on tough law enforcement.


Currently, China lacks a sound legal basis for the kinds of pollution sanctions in countries such as the United States, and the law enforcement powers of agencies such as MEP are limited. Violations carry relatively low penalties, which makes it hard, if not impossible, for companies to see the benefits of pollution reduction.


Zhang Jianyu, who heads a Chinese project tied to the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund, told Caijing that although online pollution monitoring has not been automated on a wide scale in the United States, pollution controls in America are based on the severe penalties – from fines to criminal convictions – for polluters who omit or distort information.


Recognizing their limits, MEP officials have encouraged individuals and organizations in China to participate in pollution monitoring and report violations. Moreover, sources told Caijing that it would be technically feasible to open the monitoring system to the public, which could make the monitoring system even more effective.

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Full Article in Chinese: http://magazine.caijing.com.cn/2009-03-29/110129706.html

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