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Green cops see red

ECO-COPS are sniffing the air, testing the waters and citing the stinkers. In suburban Nanhui area, Zhang Qian joins the pollution patrol and takes a deep breath.

At a lakeside in suburban Nanhui area, Zhang Lei collects water in a stainless steel bucket, then pours it into colorless plastic bottles.

He holds one of the bottles up to the sunlight, notes the light green color and records it in his notebook.

"The green water is relatively clean, but a bit eutrophic (rich in plant nutrients). It may be caused by the hot weather, but we won't know for sure until we get the laboratory results," says Zhang, vice director of the Inspection Section of Nanhui Environment Inspection Detachment in Pudong New Area.

After taking the water sample, Zhang and another inspector drive to a chemical plant to measure noise levels and collect water to check for pollutants.

Every day on average they inspect seven or eight spots.

Shanghai's environmental inspection teams play an important role in monitoring the environment condition, responding to complaints and urging polluting enterprises to clean up. They don't have the final say, however, and cannot order an enterprise closed.

Each district has a team monitoring construction sites, factories and plants, restaurants, farms, residential areas and other places.

Before construction begins on any enterprise, restaurant, residential complex or other major structure, an environmental impact statement is required. Builders must first show that their projects satisfies environmental regulations.

Throughout construction, inspectors monitor dirt and dust pollution, noise and solid waste.

Supervision continues after construction is completed, to check on air and water pollution, as well as noise and solid waste. Nothing is supposed to be discharged without proper treatment.

Citations can be issued and the recipient is required to respond formally in two months.

Inspectors spot check chemical, dye, paper, electroplate and other factories and respond to neighbors' complaints.

In hot weather, decay and fermentation occur faster, so inspectors check more often in summer.

The Nanhui area inspectors have won the top prize for environmental cops in Shanghai since 2006. In 2008 the team was honored as an "advanced group in punishing and reforming polluting enterprises."

In that year alone they handled 247 registered cases; polluters paid 6.4 million yuan (US$936,400) in fines, the most of any district in the city. (Nanhui has since been incorporated into Pudong New Area.)

Awareness of the environment has also been raised for both enterprises and residents in the past three years, says Deng Zhihua, captain of the Nanhui Environmental Inspection Detachment.

Many residents call immediately when they smell bad air or see polluted water. Today there's hardly any black smoke to be seen most of the time. Deng recalls that he used to see at least 10 chimneys belching smoke when he drove around in 2006.

Though the suburban environment is generally less polluted than more urban areas, it also has its problems.

Nanhui's 800 square kilometers includes scattered villages and towns, which makes monitoring more difficult.

"Almost all the environment problems in Shanghai can be found in Nanhui alone," says Deng.

They include small local enterprises launched years ago, livestock breeding, small salvage stations and large enterprises either opened in recent years or forced to relocate to the suburbs, he says.

On-site inspections can be difficult. While it's simple to check for noise and polluting solids and refuse, checking on water and air pollution is difficult, says Ye Yuxiang, vice captain of the Nanhui inspectors.

Some plants discharge pollutants secretly at night with concealed pipes, and halt the discharge when inspectors respond to residents' complaints.

They need to spot check and enter the plant at night - not all plant managers open the doors for them - and look for concealed pipes and specialized equipment. Then they need to collect water at the hidden outlet for laboratory tests.

It is also difficult to identify the source of air pollution due to moving air.

Three weeks ago the team received a complaint about a bad smell at a residential area near Kangqiao Industrial Zone. They checked three times but failed to find the source.

"Of course, the residents didn't lie but we cannot do anything unless we smell it," says Ye, who asks people to call immediately when the air is bad.

It took the team almost three weeks to find the culprit among 80 factories in the area. The smell didn't come from discharged air but from fermentation in the pulping process in a paper plant. Hot weather increases the rate of fermentation.

As temperatures rise, so do the number of complaints about bad air, especially when more people open their windows. The team receives 20 to 30 complaints a day.

"It is good that more residents care about the environment, but sometimes we're short of staff to handle so many cases," says Deng, captain of the inspection and monitoring detachment.

His team has 25 members, but only 13 go out for inspections while others handle logistics, communication and administration. Regulations require enterprises receiving complaints or citations to respond within two months of the day of complaint. The team tries to respond to every complaint within three days.

"Any resident's complaints, no matter how small, are a big deal for us," says Deng. "The sooner we act, the sooner the environment will improve."

Although the team puts in long hours, many residents still complain about perceived "inaction."

"We can understand their anxiety, but investigation requires time. We cannot simply shut down any enterprises the minute we receive a complaint," explains Deng.

Even after the team has collected evidence and illegal pollutants have been confirmed by a laboratory, it still takes time for the final sanction to be determined and carried out. It's usually a fine, an order to halt pollution and upgrade equipment - or face further fines and possible shutdown.

Since the team has no enforcement powers, it can only ask for a court order if an enterprise refuses to comply and clean up.

"In that case, it can take at least six months to carry out any sanction from the day we collected evidence," says Deng.

The conflict of interest between residents and workers in a polluting enterprise also makes it difficult to swiftly enforce a cleanup and sanctions.

"What can we do about workers if we suddenly shut their factory, and what about a factory with outstanding loans and orders not yet complete?" he asks.

Usually, the environmental protection department gives the polluting enterprise some time to clean up, before calling for a shutdown. Meantime, inspectors urge companies to improve production processes.

As more industrial zones are launched in Nanhui, there will be a lot more work for these environment cops. Dorm monitors make sound difference

Joyce Zhang

University students are also helping to protect the environment throughout Shanghai.

Almost every university has its own youth volunteer team that takes part in environmental protection, including raising public awareness, inspecting the nearby environment and making suggestions for improvement to authorities.

Students of environmental science and engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University have just completed an evaluation report on the campus environment.

They spent months checking the air, water, noise levels and solid waste and compared the result with the national standards for a university campus. The result: The campus environment is generally fine, maybe a B+, but the noise at dormitories near Expressway A4 is above the accepted standard.

The report, suggestions for improvement and a survey of 2,000 students were turned over to authorities.

As a result, students were shifted to other dormitories away from the highway, the time for grass mowing at the dorm was shifted to class hours at the dorm, and at rest time in classroom buildings.

"Though many students complained about the noise earlier, it was hard for authorities to accept without solid proof," says 23-year-old Tian Ya, a member of the team. "That's why we compared our inspection results with national standards to demonstrate the problem clearly."

Tian sees tending to the environment as part of his social responsibility. Though it's difficult for the voices of students like him to be heard, he says, improvements can be made if students win authorities over to their side.

Other Shanghai students are doing their bit.

The eco-volunteers at Fudan University monitor the water of Xitiao Stream, a tributary of the Huangpu River.

Monitors at the Shanghai No. 2 Military Medical University monitor the handling and recycling of electronic waste.

The team at East China Normal University surveys the "green consumption" or buying habits of local residents. Kids are low-carbon pioneers

Joyce Zhang

Middle school students are also getting in on the environmental protection act.

Eco-teams from 10 middle schools are taking part in a five-week low-carbon living program called a "Student Low-Carbon Pioneer Activity."

The participating schools include Shixi Middle School, Shanghai No. 3 Girls Middle School and Yangpu Middle School.

The program that began on July 1 includes presentation of environmental protection programs, screening of films, visits to waste-recycling companies and lectures on low-carbon living, waste recycling and water and soil conservation.

Shixi Middle School students recommend eating more organic foods, cooking more foods in traditional Chinese ways like steaming or boiling (reducing oil), reducing the use of disposable tableware, and riding bikes.

The team collects waste paper, chopsticks, lunch boxes, bottles and batteries for recycling.

"Publicizing environmental awareness cannot be done by simply just printing brochures," says Ji Qin, adviser of the team. "Encouraging students to take action can teach them more about what low-carbon life really is."


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