* Beijing authorities handle 5-6,000 complaints a month
* Team of 500 inspectors struggling to cope
* Workload rising as China cracks down on pollution
* Air in capital far dirtier than recommended levels
By Kathy Chen and David Stanway
BEIJING, May 14 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
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
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
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 percent 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 U.S.
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 $0.40 per member of the population, compared
with $25 in the United States.
Researchers have said that while China's environmental
legislation has improved in recent years, authorities have
struggled to keep pace with the growth of the economy.
That expansion has brought thousands of polluting factories
into existence without the equivalent increase in the state's
"We have had this race between economic growth and
environmental protection, and even though we have the policies,
and even if they are effectively implemented, we are still quite
overwhelmed by the rapid economic growth," said Qi Ye, director
of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy.
Beijing has seen its population grow 66 percent and the
total number of vehicles by nearly 200 percent between 1998 and
2012, putting huge pressure on regulators when it comes to
implementing policies like fuel standards.
Li Kunsheng, director of the vehicle emissions centre of the
Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, told Reuters that while
Beijing only permits vehicles that conform to tough fuel
standards, the city has neither the technology nor the boots on
the ground to enforce its rules.
"We check local cars very strictly, but for those coming
into the city from outside, we can only rely on transport police
to stop and check them," he said.
"Large numbers of vehicles have problems, and relying on
this method doesn't really solve anything."
Last month, China passed long-awaited new amendments to its
1989 Environmental Protection Law, giving legal backing to the
army of environmental inspectors and promising additional powers
to monitor and punish violators.
"The new environmental law does have something to say about
expanding environmental enforcement powers, so we will certainly
get bigger," said Yan Xiangyang, head of the Beijing
environmental bureau's inspection office.
"We will certainly get stronger, but I can't say how many
more people we will get. That isn't our decision."
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)