SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Environmental protection officials in the northwestern Chinese city of Xian have been detained after they were found to have tampered with air quality monitoring equipment and falsified data, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday.
As part of its war against pollution, China has been trying to establish a real-time emissions monitoring system that will allow it to punish violations more effectively, but the widespread falsification of data remains a huge challenge.
The country's new environmental protection law, which went into effect at the start of last year, stipulated that parties guilty of falsifying data would be held equally responsible for pollution and punished accordingly.
The Xian environmental protection bureau confirmed media reports that staff at a local monitoring station had stuffed sensors with cotton to lower emission readings and removed surveillance tapes to cover up their deception, Xinhua said.
A total of five officials are facing charges. It was not possible to determine their identity or to reach them, and it was not known if the five had hired counsel.
Officials with the Xian environmental bureau would not comment on the matter when contacted by Reuters.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) told Reuters that his ministry had already contacted the Xian bureau and was awaiting a response.
Dong Liansai, a campaigner with environmental group Greenpeace, said the news should serve as a warning that Beijing is serious about punishing environmental violations.
"The MEP must continue to investigate such cases of falsified readings and ensure that local governments fully implement central government policy," Dong said.
The environment ministry has long expressed concern about fraudulent behavior by firms, including the misuse or misplacement of pollution sensors or the deletion of data.
In guidelines issued in June to crack down on fraud, the MEP said local governments "act as both the player and the referee" when it comes to monitoring emissions, and "administrative interference" in the monitoring process was on the rise.
The ministry in a bulletin published on Tuesday said its latest inspections in Hebei province revealed that a polluting coking plant had also sought to evade detection by tampering with emissions monitoring equipment.
Earlier this year, a scathing MEP report accused firms in Hebei, one of China's most polluted provinces, of routinely evading environmental rules and perpetrating fraud.
(Reporting by David Stanway and the Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Tom Hogue)