China pollution

China’s environment watchdog reads riot act to megacity over litany of pollution failures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 July, 2017, 5:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 July, 2017, 11:05pm

China’s top environmental watchdog has accused one of the country’s biggest cities of not taking pollution seriously, reading the riot act to municipal bosses over a long list of failures to safeguard air and water quality.

The dressing-down from the Ministry of Environmental Protection to a group of Tianjin officials on the weekend was based on a month-long assessment that started in April 28.

The ministry sent a team to the city to take stock of its environmental protection efforts, only to find Tianjin authorities had done a poor job in protecting its air and water, and were falling well short of “what the central government has required it to do, what a municipality should do, and what the public expects”.

In a statement released on Saturday, the ministry accused some municipal leaders of shirking responsibility entirely.

“When there’s water pollution, they immediately complain about dirty water from upstream areas; when there’s air pollution, they immediately blame climate factors,” it said.

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The detailing of the problems and lecturing of the top officials reflects Beijing’s growing seriousness in tackling pollution, a major source of social unrest and a visible sign of poor governance, especially in northern China where air contamination is severe.

The ministry said Tianjin officials held plenty of meetings to study government documents and chanted a lot of slogans, but did not do enough to actually cut pollution.

And despite the grim air conditions in the city – levels of fine PM2.5 pollutants rose 27.5 per cent in the first quarter – Tianjin’s planners still wanted to build more thermal power plants, the ministry found.

“The chronic problem largely remains that the city is surrounded by steel plants and industrial parks, and the efforts to reduce or control the use of coal were weak.”

For example, city inspectors simply fined sellers of poor quality coal rather than banishing them from the market, allowing at least a quarter of a million tonnes of the substandard fuel to be sold in 2015 and 2016.

Chemical plants also pumped pollutants into the air well above allowable limits. Ministry inspectors found non-methane emissions from two devices at a Tianjin Petrochemical plant up to 561 times higher than national standards on March 10.

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Another complaint was the city’s half-hearted approach to tackling vehicle emissions.

Just 200 vehicles were fined for emission violations in Tianjin last year and the port city had not come up with a plan to enact a national ban on high-sulphur marine fuels.

The ministry also caused a stink over Tianjin’s poor water management. Despite being by the sea, only 15 per cent of its water was clean, due in large part to the many dams along on its rivers that created dead zones. On top of that, 61 million tonnes of polluted water from downtown Tianjin was dumped directly into rivers each year because of an inadequate sewage system.

When the inspectors examine solid waste disposal, they found just five of 13 planned rubbish processing plants up and running, well after the 2015 deadline for them to be operational.

Garbage processing in Jinghai and Ninghe districts “is almost blank”, the ministry said, meaning there were no facilities at all.

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The Tianjin authorities have been given 30 days to come up with a plan to remedy the problems and submit it to the State Council.

The ministry is airing its assessments of other areas, including the coal-rich province of Shanxi and Fujian in the southeast but Tianjin came in for special treatment partly because some city officials tried to mislead the inspectors, it said.

Binhai New Area and Wuqing district in Tianjin, for instance, had tried to distort air quality readings by controlling traffic flows and spraying water to tamp down particles around the monitoring sites.

The water bureau of Jinghai also produced fraudulent “meeting minutes and work logs”.