By David Stanway
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China has publicly named more than 20 enterprises it says broke environmental rules during this week’s outbreak of hazardous smog in the country's north, its latest attempt to bring lawbreaking firms to account by shaming them.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) accused steel and paper mills, cement plants, power generators and chemical producers of a range of offences, including ignoring output suspensions, "maliciously" evading government inspections and falsifying production data.
Beijing's latest public shaming campaign - in which strongly-worded ministry reprimands are disseminated by local TV and newspapers - is its most overt attempt to bring polluters to account by exposing their infringements to wider community scrutiny, one part of the government's broader "war on pollution" launched in 2014.
But with employment still a priority and penalties too weak, this tactic – used in the past, albeit in a more low-key manner – has done little to discourage firms from evading or ignoring emergency measures imposed in 24 northern cities put on smog "red alert" this week.
"Naming and shaming is meant to deter firms from environmental violations," said Alex Wang, an expert in Chinese environmental law at UCLA. "But where the economics don't work out for firms, and in places where non-compliance is common, (the tactic) won't have much of an effect."
This year, the environment ministry has turned its fire on local governments for lapses in enforcement, singling out cities like Linfen in Shanxi province. It said last month that 487 officials in smog-hit Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, would be punished for environmental failings.
Hebei, home to seven of China's 10 most polluted cities last year, set up a "media exposure platform" in October and promised to publish cases of serious violations at least twice a month.
While the transparency push has made it harder for firms to conceal their transgressions, an investigation by the MEP this week showed the province remains one of the country's worst black spots for rule-breaking.
The investigation, published on Thursday, revealed six Hebei steelmakers failed to comply with a Dec. 18 order to suspend all sintering operations. It identified the offenders as Hebei Rongxin Steel, Qianan Zhayi Steel, Tangshan Stainless Steel, Tangshan Xinglong Steel and Tangshan Ganglu Steel.
Of the firms, only Tangshan Ganglu could be reached for comment on Thursday, but an official said he had no information about the matter.
The ministry also accused three more provincial steel firms - including Hebei Xinda Iron and Steel - of "maliciously" restarting sintering facilities as soon as its inspectors had left the site.
An official with Hebei Xinda also said he was unaware of the situation when contacted by Reuters on Thursday.
Three firms named by the MEP earlier this week - Shandong Yuhuang Chemical, Heze Dashu Biological Engineering and Mancheng Success Paper Industry - told Reuters they had subsequently complied with the orders to suspend production, but they would not say whether they would suffer any further punishment.
A logistics subsidiary of oil giant PetroChina, based in Hebei's Zhuozhou, was accused of exceeding special emissions restrictions imposed this week.
An official at the company told Reuters that it has already paid "special attention" to the criticism and rectified its mistakes. He said he did not know if the firm would be subject to any additional penalties.
China first used shaming tactics in 2005, when Pan Yue, the crusading vice-head of what was then the lower-ranking State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), spearheaded several high-profile media campaigns against big state enterprises.
Central government-administered firms, including the Three Gorges Project Corporation, were forced to give way having previously argued they were not subject to SEPA rules, which meant they could build new projects without seeking approval. Subsequent rounds of naming and shaming came as a consequence of ad-hoc inspection campaigns.
Wang of UCLA argues while such tactics have a short-term impact, polluting firms need to be put under constant and systematic real-time scrutiny.
"These campaign-style inspections still only catch violators intermittently (and) China is going to need to make more dramatic reforms," he said, adding that citizens should be given "bounties" for reporting violations.
A new law enacted early last year laid out heavier punishments and ruled environmental violations must be disclosed to the public. The MEP was also given new powers this year to conduct spot inspections anywhere in the country and to summon officials to account for their actions.
While China now has the legal framework to bring pollution under control, Wang believes economic worries will still undermine enforcement efforts.
"We should hope for central inspection teams to bring the same sort of rigor to local enforcement in surrounding areas that we see when major international events like the APEC meeting or the Beijing Olympics come to town," Wang said.
(Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Sam Holmes)