Beijing's smog police outgunned in China's war on pollution

Chinese tourists wearing facemasks during a visit to Tiananmen Square as heavy air pollution continues to shroud Beijing, on Feb 26, 2014. Environmental inspectors in Beijing are scrambling to keep pace with a rising number of cases as the city
Chinese tourists wearing facemasks during a visit to Tiananmen Square as heavy air pollution continues to shroud Beijing, on Feb 26, 2014. Environmental inspectors in Beijing are scrambling to keep pace with a rising number of cases as the city tries to impose tough new standards on thousands of polluting firms, highlighting the growing logistical problems facing China's war on smog. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Environmental inspectors in Beijing are scrambling to keep pace with a rising number of cases as the city tries to impose tough new standards on thousands of polluting firms, highlighting the growing logistical problems facing China's war on smog.

The Chinese capital has been at the frontline of a "war against pollution" declared by Premier Li Keqiang in March, and 652 industrial facilities were punished for breaching environmental regulations there in the first four months of 2014.

Beijing's efforts are part of a promise made by the central government to reverse the damage done by decades of untrammeled growth and beef up powers to shut down and punish polluting firms.

But the city's 500-strong squad of environmental enforcers have struggled to cope with the sheer volume of complaints. "We have a total of 500 inspectors throughout the city, and it is certainly far, far from enough to ensure proper oversight," said Li Xiang, an inspector with the municipal environmental protection bureau.

Li was speaking at the team's headquarters in the northwestern outskirts of the city, where a fleet of grubby white inspection vans was being prepared for a new operation. "Actually there are just too many cases," he added, noting that the city environmental bureau is now handling around 5,000-6,000 complaints a month. "One after another they come to our department and it becomes impossible - we can only adopt a guiding role and do our best to set up standard working procedures for the most important cases."

Making matters worse, some firms are slow to cooperate, with bosses refusing to sign documents, blocking vehicles from entering the premises and on occasion resorting to verbal abuse.

The problem is not just in Beijing, where harmful particle concentrations known as PM2.5 are 156 per cent higher than the recommended national standard and over four times the daily level recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Hundreds of smaller, less prosperous cities across the country face even bigger challenges.

According to the Energy Foundation, a non-government US advisory group, China had a total of 2,935 officials involved in environmental protection by the end of 2011, compared with 17,106 in the United States.

It also estimated that China's environmental budget in 2012 amounted to just US$0.40 (S$0.5) per member of the population, compared with US$25 in the United States.