China Catches Industrial Polluters in Drone Missions Over North

Jun 29, 2014 2:06 am ET

June 29 (Bloomberg) -- China is turning to aerial drones to monitor pollution, with its biggest mission to date finding illegal emissions by some of the largest industrial companies in the country’s northern provinces.

A unit of Hebei Iron & Steel Group, China’s No. 1 steelmaker, Shanxi Huaze Aluminum & Power Co., and Inner Mongolia Yihua Chemical Co. were found to have “serious environmental problems,” the Ministry of Environmental Protection said on its website yesterday. Data gathered by the drones indicate a quarter of the 254 businesses targeted may be involved in illegal practices, it said.

Premier Li Keqiang declared war on pollution in March after swathes of northern China were blanketed in smog and the government’s climate-change adviser said the situation had reached intolerable levels. Poor air quality in the world’s biggest carbon emitter is a regional health issue and damaging foreign investment and talent retention, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan warned the same month.

This month’s use of drones for law-enforcement purposes follows trial monitoring from November through February in Hebei province, the ministry said. Unmanned aircraft equipped with thermal infrared cameras covered 1,000 square kilometers across the regions of Hebei, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia from June 16-27, according to its statement.

Worst Polluters

The ministry said it will follow up with on-the-ground inspections to ensure companies stop their illegal emissions.

Hebei, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia are among the worst polluters and the focus of government efforts to clean the environment. Seven of the 10 Chinese cities with the worst air pollution in the third quarter of last year were located in Hebei, according to government data.

Hebei, which surrounds the Chinese capital Beijing, is the country’s biggest steelmaking region and accounted for about a quarter of national output last year. Shanxi and Inner Mongolia are among the country’s biggest coal-producing provinces.

The use of unmanned aircraft means that companies secretively discharging pollutants at night or on weekends will find no place to hide, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday, citing Chen Shanrong, deputy head of environmental supervision at the ministry.