Nov 13, 2014 12:22 PM

'Phantom Workers' Signing Environmental Reports, NGO Finds

(Beijing) – Environmental assessments are crucial documents companies and government agencies must obtain before they can start building anything from a massive project like the Three Gorges Dam to a trash facility in a small community. Now, it appears fake assessors and falsified reports are involved in some of those projects.

A notice issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in September criticized 31 assessment companies for cheating. One firm had its rating downgraded, seven had their business scope reduced and the others were closed until they fixed the problem.

The companies were accused of listing a total of 62 "phantom workers" as assessors – phantom inasmuch as they never did any work on the assessments as legally required, but still signed off on the appraisals. Most of the assessors, it turns out, are employees of environmental protection departments, an arrangement that would appear to break a law prohibiting civil servants from taking outside work with companies.

This is the first time the authorities have addressed the problem of fake environmental assessors, but some say the problem has been around for a long time.

The ministry's notice was prompted by a report from the Chongqing Liangjiang Voluntary Service Center, a non-governmental organization that focuses on easing industrial pollution.

Xiang Chun, director of Chongqing Liangjiang, said that in March the NGO reported 43 of the 62 fake assessors and 20 companies blacklisted by the ministry. In all, Chongqing Liangjiang reported 129 fake assessors, said Xiang, who expected that more official investigations will be launched soon.

But the problem could be much worse. Xiang said Chongqing Liangjiang's list was based on just its investigations in the eastern province of Jiangsu and the central province of Hubei. Since the Law on Appraising of Environment Impacts was promulgated in 2003, projects all around the country are required to get assessment reports before work starts.

Over the past decade, the companies producing these assessments have together blossomed into huge industry, but the ministry's notice and the information gathered by Chongqing Liangjiang cast doubt on whether these firms are in fact effective gatekeepers.

Phantom Assessors

The ministry issued a circular on fake environmental assessors on July 31, after Chongqing Liangjiang sent its information to the ministry. That information included a 16-page report on a preliminary investigation into the issue.

Chongqing Liangjiang told the ministry that in Jiangsu cities such as Wuxi, Haimen and Haian a number of environmental assessment companies had fewer registered assessors than were required. Moreover, many assessors registered at these firms did not really work for them, it said.

Chongqing Liangjiang said that based on its investigations 129 assessors registered with 53 companies were actually working elsewhere, such as in a local environmental protection bureau or other government agency.

For instance, the NGO found that an environmental protection bureau official in Handan City, Hebei Province, was listed as an assessor for Jiangsu Jiayi Environmental Technology Service Co. when the latter applied to the ministry for its qualification in 2009. That official was also on an expert team in Hebei Province that conducted reviews and inspections for assessment reports.

In Hubei's Daya City, Chongqing Liangjiang found that the head of the pollution control department was listed as an assessor for Yiwu Huayu Environmental Protection Engineering Co. in 2010 in Zhejiang Province and Hubei Yongye Assessment and Consulting Co. in 2011.

Chongqing Liangjiang said the arrangement blurred the lines between government supervision and environmental assessments, which are is supposed to be independent. The NGO also argued that it also violated the Civil Servant Law, which bans government employees from taking a position with businesses or for-profit organizations.

Unexpected Discoveries

Chongqing Liangjiang's investigation took two years, Xiang said. The NGO, which was established in early 2010, initially focused on preventing industrial pollution. Its employees monitor factory emissions and report excessive pollution to government agencies.

In 2011, it started to turn its attention to the environmental assessment process because, as Xiang said, "if gatekeeping work is done well before a project is started, the following costs will be much lower."

In the following years, Chongqing Liangjiang started collecting information on all kinds of environmental assessment reports and related project information, studying whether the appraisals were done properly.

In July 2013, the NGO launched an online database of assessments for construction projects across the country that the public could access. The database got little attention, but employees of Chongqing Liangjiang made an unexpected discovery during their work: They found that many local environmental protection officials were also listed as employees of various assessment companies.

The assessors have to pass an exam to get certified, and the companies can only open when it has enough number of appraisers. Since it was difficult to meet these standards, some firms tried to get around the regulations.

Song Yaguang, an employee at Chongqing Liangjiang who previously worked in the environmental assessment industry for four years, said that many companies' reports were put together by employees who were not certified but then signed by a qualified assessor before they were sent submitted to authorities.

Song said that he worked on many reports that were signed by assessors registered with his company, but who never did any work on the assessments.

The law allows people without certificates to participate in the assessments, but qualified assessors must be involved with the report and approve it. The reality is different: qualified assessors rent their qualifications out to companies for them to get business approval.

"Everybody knows the rules, but it is common that people break the law," Song said. "There is also lack of supervision."

Meeting the Ministry

Chongqing Liangjiang sent the ministry other information on specific cases after its initial report, but got no response. It later asked for an update on the issue, and Xiang made frequent calls to the ministry's environmental assessment department.

In March, a statement from the Hubei Environmental Protection Bureau got Xiang and his colleagues excited. The bureau ordered that qualifications of local assessors be inspected and said the ministry "received reports from an environmental protection organization about violations in the assessment practice and asked local bureaus to launch an investigation into the issue."

In June, a month before the ministry issued its first notice, Xiang met a deputy director of the ministry's assessment department. "He was very curious about our investigative method and I told them the information is all from the Internet," Xiang said.

The official said the ministry was investigating and the results would be released soon, Xiang said. Now, Xiang and Chongqing Liangjiang are planning to expand their probe. "We will do it province by province and continue our reports," he said.

(Rewritten by Han Wei)

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