By Kong Lingyu
China, September 2, 2015
(Beijing) – Amid mounting concerns about environmental issues, a growing number of people in China are starting to take the fight against pollution into their own hands.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and volunteer groups focused on environmental protection have been sprouting up around the country over the past few years. Most are engaged in detection efforts and conducting their own research on industrial pollution that is often ignored by the government.
The most active players include Chongqing Liangjiang Voluntary Service Center, Tianjin Binhai Environmental Advisory Service Center and Green Hunan, among others. These groups often use satellite maps to spot sources of pollution, especially in remote areas, and then set off to inspect the sites. After collecting enough evidence, they tell authorities and the media what they have found in the hope that the violations will be addressed.
These NGOs and volunteer groups are becoming a formidable force in public oversight on pollution, but they still face steep opposition from companies, lukewarm reception from government officials and limitations from their own resources. In response they say the government should engage with the groups and offer them support.
Doing the Homework
Set up in 2010, Liangjiang was one of the earliest NGOs to focus on checks for industrial pollution. Its volunteers have been busy traveling across the country to find industrial pollution problems. In May, a team led by Bai Xiaozhi made a seven-day trip to the eastern province of Shandong for a follow-up inspection of several problematic sites they found in August 2014.
Problems uncovered by Bai and his colleagues include a papermaking factory in Shandong’s Gaotang County, aluminum plants in Liaocheng City, and a number of companies engaging in the rubber, textile, chemical, steel and fertilizer industries. Some plants were found illegally discharging wastewater without proper treatment. Many of the sites are in quiet rural areas.
Liangjiang volunteers take samples from sites and sends them to testing centers so they can be checked for pollutants. Those checks scan for the presence of several kinds of pollutants exceeding national standards. The group then mails a research report and test results to related government departments.
Liangjiang has yet to receive any feedback from environmental authorities, but on June 19, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said 26 illegal chemical plants in Liaocheng had been punished.
Bai said the group’s approach to research is simple and traditional, and includes taking photos, conducting interviews and collecting samples.
NGOs also attempt to verify the figures that companies release on official online government monitoring platforms by comparing it to actual performance.
“We pay special attention to Tianjin’s pollution information platform, compile statistics on outdated figures and incomplete disclosure, and report findings to environmental regulators,” said Dong Jian, director of Tianjin Binhai Environmental Advisory Service Center.
In the southwestern province of Sichuan, volunteers at Green Sichuan, said they have found falsified pollution information disclosure in several cities. Many companies have falsified their pollution figures to meet national standards.
Ma Jun, the director of Institute of Public and Environments Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental NGO, said data on the government monitoring platforms are mainly reported by companies themselves, without strict assessment by regulators.
Stifled on Several Fronts
NGO are eager to fight pollution, but they also complain they are facing bigger barriers in conducting inspections than in the past. Liangjiang volunteers say factories are better at hiding emission sources and, companies and local authorities can be extremely hostile. Some volunteers have even been detained by police.
In Shouguang County, in Shandong, Liangjiang volunteers found water pumped from underground smelled bad and was tainted, but no waste discharge site could be found. Local villagers later told the organization that discharge pipes had been placed underground.
During the trip, Bai’s team was watched and interrupted by unidentified people when they tested soil outside a plant.
Beyond this, testing for samples is expensive, and NGOs have limited cash resources. “Tests for organic pollutants are very expensive. For instance, a test for dioxins usually costs more than 10,000 yuan,” said Bai.
A lack of talented people is cited as another headache. Dong said conducting checks for industrial pollution requires expert knowledge.
“It requires a minimum understanding of companies’ pollution practices, major pollutants, sampling methods and the environmental assessment of industrial projects,” Dong said. “A basic understanding of environmental science is not enough due to the complexities of these different industries. We badly need experts to contribute guidance.”
The attitudes of officials are also key. Zhu Qing, the water project head of Tianjin Binhai, said his team conducted checks on 22 water pollution cases last year, but four-fifths of officials they approached showed little interest or even obstructed their work. Some local governments are not happy about this approach to fighting pollution because they want to protect local commercial interests, Zhu said.
However, Liangjiang’s director, Xiang Chun, is more optimistic that things are improving. He said that although regulators rarely respond to NGOs’ reports, they believe the benefit of their work is not going entirely unnoticed.
In May, Bai’s team found two problematic wastewater discharge sites it uncovered in August in Liaocheng had been fixed. Bai said the change might be related to Liangjiang’s reports to the local environmental protection bureau, even though the group never received any feedback from officials.
Xiang said that in Liangjiang’s home city, Chongqing, environmental officials have started to work with his organization to investigate pollution issues, a good sign of improved cooperation between the government and NGOs.
“The ideal scenario is that social groups and the government realize they are after the same goal, and then make their best effort, and keep on communicating,” said one employee of an environmental NGO.
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