Teams have spent the past year rigorously checking implementation of environmental regulations.
In his 10 years as an environmental law enforcement officer, Yin Wei has never known his schedule to be as tight as when he was sent to the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster as part of a yearlong program to monitor air pollution control.
During the three weeks he spent in Handan, Hebei province, Yin got up at 6 a.m. but didn't get to bed before midnight. He spent his days inspecting companies, either openly or covertly, and looking for any violations of pollution regulations. "We only had half an hour for lunch," he said, referring to the hectic schedule.
The native of Lyuliang, Shanxi province, and his colleagues would arrive back at their hotel at about 7 pm every evening, and then rush to send details of violations or illegal behavior to the Ministry of Environmental Protection by 9 pm. After that, they scoured complaints submitted to local authorities, looking for clues to potential irregularities, and then selected the companies they would inspect the following day.
Every company may be inspected several times and the inspection records will be handed on to successive teams, he said.
Yin, whose four-strong team was among the first to be dispatched, is one of 5,600 officers taking part in the largest-ever air pollution control operation in North China. The assignment started on April 5, although most of the teams only take part in the inspection for two weeks at a time.
Even though the inspection has made progress and air quality in the cluster has been improved, work to control air pollution in the region will be intensified. Meanwhile, as the inspection draws to a close, the authorities have been drafting a new three-year operation dubbed a "blue sky protection campaign". As a follow-up measure, a number of leading experts will work to draft air pollution measures tailored to the situations in each of the 28 major cities in the cluster, according to officials.
The inspection was launched in the wake of an action plan released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in August that ordered the cities to reduce concentrations of PM2.5－dangerous particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers that can enter the bloodstream via the lungs－by at least 15 percent between October and March.
In addition to checking the implementation of air pollution controls by local governments and assessing emissions' monitoring equipment at businesses, the inspectors have closed small plants that were responsible for high levels of emissions.
According to Liu Youbin, a ministry spokesman, inspectors have investigated conditions at 210,000 companies and discovered 36,000 violations of the regulations. The ministry has also supervised the handling of 20,000 serious violations.
Initially, about 9,000 companies were included in a list of heavily polluting businesses that were ordered to lower or suspend production during periods of heavy air pollution. The number has now risen to 50,000, and about 62,000 poorly-managed polluting enterprises have been closed or relocated, or have upgraded their equipment, Liu said at a news conference on Feb 27.
The inspection has effectively underlined the need to enforce the laws related to the environment, and in a bid to prevent local interests from undermining the inspections, none of the enforcement officers come from the cities they are inspecting, he added.
"The experience gained during the inspection has been highly instructive, and I believe the model could be promoted in other parts of the country during future efforts to enforce the environmental laws," he said.
At present, environmental law enforcement officers are allocated evenly across the country, instead of being concentrated in the areas that require the most stringent inspections and enforcement, according to a leading official.