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Forged reports of environmental impact assessment signed by zombie engineers registered in shell firms are challenging green progress and potentially putting communities at risk

By Zhou Qunfeng Updated Nov.1

Environmental impact assessors from China Railway No.4 Engineering Group work at the construction site of a railway section in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, May 25, 2022

Water quality assessors take samples from Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, May 16, 2022

In just four months between 2020 and 2021, one engineer completed and signed off on 1,604 Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) for projects across 25 provinces and regions including Shandong, Guangdong and Jiangxi. This miracle worker, Jin Haiyan, allegedly submitted at least twice as many reports as the next most productive engineer, according to an investigation by environmental campaigners, Chinese media reported. 

Normally, a proper EIA report comprises hundreds or even thousands of pages and needs a lot of time to conduct on-site research to collect data on water, soil and air quality as well as interviewing locals before finishing an evaluation. The assessment usually focuses on the project’s potential gains or losses besides foreseeable economic interests and its anti-pollution measures. 

“The fact is that writing more than 1,600 documents in such a short stint definitely challenges our common sense,” said Xiang Chun, director of the Green Data Environmental Protection Center, a non-profit anti-pollution and environmental protection organization based in Guangzhou, capital of South China’s Guangdong Province. 

On December 29, 2018, China amended its EIA Law to revoke the government’s role in the sector, leaving market competition as the only factor to decide the qualifications of assessment agencies. The new law allows an EIA agency to be officially recognized, as long as it employs one certified EIA engineer. EIA certificates are issued for those who pass an examination organized by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. According to Cai Chunxia, deputy manager of Beijing Guohuan Environmental Technology Co Ltd, since implementing the amendment, the number of licensed EIA institutes grew from less than 1,000 to 8,281, over 50 percent of which have just one EIA engineer. 

In a press conference held on July 21, 2022, Liu Zhiquan, director of the Environmental Impact Assessment and Emission Management Department of the MEE, revealed that it has blacklisted or issued warnings to 265 institutes and 217 persons involved in dishonest operations since 2021. In the next stage, the ministry will check all EIA institutes and their over 14,000 registered EIA engineers to eliminate shell firms and “zombie” engineers. 

However, it will be hard and time-consuming to find out whether the EIA engineers who signed off on reports are actually the people who are really responsible for writing the actual EIA, though elimination of shell firms is easy, according to legal expert Professor Wang Canfa, chief supervisor of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences. Therefore, preventive measures to set higher thresholds for access to the EIA market will be more effective than simply imposing criminal penalties following sweeping crackdowns on shell firms and fraudulent sign-offs.

Shell Firms and Zombie Engineers
Since taking effect in 2002, the EIA Law designated the environmental protection department under the State Council as the only authority to license an EIA agency. For a long time, businesses that engaged in performing EIAs were mostly environmental science institutes and academies affiliated with government environmental protection bureaus at different levels, from local to national. The two agencies were closely connected, with officials and experts sharing office buildings and promotion opportunities regardless of their different duties. 

However, in March 2015, the two parties were ordered to disassociate before the end of 2016 when the first amendment of the law took effect. The amendment stipulated that EIA agencies should not have conflicts of interest with environmental protection authorities. 

At the end of 2018, the second amendment of the EIA Law took effect. It further loosened control over who could conduct EIAs, enabling more agencies to register, but with a much lower regulatory threshold. 

As a result, the new law enables a person to set up multitudes of firms with just one nominal EIA engineer, who does not need to work for any particular EIA agency. The engineer needs only to provide his or her signature on the EIA report, a literal rubber stamp procedure. 

On October 25, 2019, the MEE set up the online EIA Credit Platform as the supervisory body to track all registered EIA agencies. Misconduct is recorded on the platform. 

“We’ve noted some people registered dozens of agencies on the [Credit Platform] website. So to many of them, removing one from the platform makes little difference,” Green Data’s Xiang told News- China. Other entities under the control of the same person can still operate as long as the EIA engineer is unaffected, Xiang said. 

A certified EIA engineer should conduct on-site research, attend approval meetings and write reports before signing off on a project. However, many agencies just pay zombie engineers for their signature. They may not even sign their name themselves. The signatures on reports or brochures cost from hundreds to tens of thousands of yuan according to the signer’s seniority. 

Cost saving is the primary incentive for paying zombie engineers. In 2019, the China Economic Herald reported on a zombie engineer surnamed Sun who had signed a three-year contract with an EIA agency. According to the agreement, the institute would pay Sun, who certified, 40,000 yuan (US$5,932) a year to sign off on projects. It is much cheaper than hiring an EIA engineer to conduct real assessments, where annual salaries are at least 100,000 yuan (US$14,784). Among the EIA engineers, novices who earn less are usually more willing to sign off on projects than veterans. 
The risk of signing problematic EIA reports also boosted demand for zombie engineers. According to an anonymous EIA engineer in Guangdong Province, many EIA engineers will ask their employers to pay for signatures from engineers registered with other firms rather than sign their own names, because they do not want to shoulder the responsibility for projects proceeding under their assessments. “If other people sign, there won’t be any penalties imposed on the true EIA engineer once the projects are found to be problematic,” the EIA engineer said. 

He cited a case in Guangdong Province. When they conducted an EIA report on a furniture company that used a high-volatility oil varnish already banned in the province, no one wanted to sign off on it. 

Because of the risk, becoming an EIA engineer is not as attractive as before for young professionals. Cai said the shortage of EIA engineers has therefore fueled the need for zombie engineers, driving up their annual salary from about 50,000 yuan (US$7,395) to more than 100,000 yuan (US$14,784).

Officials from Xiaogan Municipal Ecology and Environment Bureau Yunmeng County Branch in Hubei Province examine outflows from a silicone plant on August 18, 2020

Cooked Books
In June, Green Data accused Shandong Fangwei Environmental Engineering based in Weifang Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone, Shandong Province, of plagiarism in one of its assessments for an industrial park near the city of Weifang in Shandong. 

Suspicious of the originality of the expressions and graphic design, Green Data found most geographic information was based on places that were irrelevant to the actual report, and had it lifted nearly all the information from EIAs for other projects. 

The report, “The EIA on the Kuiju Industrial Zone Plan,” a development in Changyi City near Weifang, comprised cut-and-paste sections from EIAs for other industrial parks, with only keywords changed, like specific names and locations. 

On June 27, 2022, Weifang Ecological and Environmental Bureau responded to Green Data that an investigation was underway. Xiang said that Shandong Fangwei Engineering canceled their account on the Environment Ministry’s EIA Credit Platform soon after the whistleblowing. 

Meanwhile, the case of super-assessor Jin Haiyan of Shandong Jinhua Environmental Protection Science and Technology Co Ltd, who signed off on 1,604 files, including 63 reports and 1,541 forms, between September 28, 2020 and February 2, 2021, is also under investigation. According to a report on Voice of China, a channel under China National Radio, there are only two ways one EIA engineer could complete over 1,000 reports in four months: Either the EIA engineer “rented out” his qualified signature to non-certified EIA engineers or they plagiarized the reports. 

MEE spokesperson Liu Youbin announced on February 25, 2021 that most of the 1,604 reports were not submitted for approval. Those submitted would be reviewed and penalized for any violations.

Underlining Oversight
While the reform to relax EIA market access promises to foster transparency and competition, proper regulation and supervisory measures are necessary to avoid market chaos, Xiang noted. 

There have been crackdowns over irregularities over the years. In April 2022, environmental authorities penalized 14 zombie engineers and their employers in Tianjin, and their violations registered on the EIA Credit Platform. 

In fact, authorities launched crackdowns on fake reports and irresponsible signatures before the ratification of the amendment. On July 30, 2014, 62 EIA engineers from 31 institutes across the country, including Beijing and Hebei and Fujian provinces, had their certificates revoked for fraud discovered during random inspections conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the forerunner of the MEE. 

According to China’s amended Criminal Law issued on March 1, 2021, personnel with EIA and environmental monitoring organizations will face criminal charges for providing fake information. Anyone who provides falsified documents and causes severe consequences while working with EIA or environmental monitoring agencies will be fined and could face up to five years in jail. If their misconduct causes severe damage to State and public property or people, the penalty is 5-10 years in jail, plus fines. 

So far, there have hardly been any convictions. According to Xiang, the discrepancy between police and ecological and environmental bodies in terms of evidence collection and identification has affected legal procedures. 

Law expert Wang Canfa told NewsChina it is difficult to distinguish false or plagiarized reports from bona fide ones, as some of the fake information is well camouflaged. Meanwhile, legal clarifications from higher courts are required to specify and guide lower courts as to how serious a consequence should be in EIA criminal cases. 

While Liu Zhiquan of the MEE vowed severe punishments for violators involved in producing fake EIA reports at the July press conference, Wang proposed a preventive mechanism, saying the probes should not wait until problems surface. According to him, the onesize- fits-all policy, which canceled all requirements to prove that EIA agencies and the assessors they employ are qualified for the task, just resulted in the rampancy of shell firms and zombie engineers. Simply employing one licensed EIA engineer is nowhere near enough. 

“Learning from this lesson, we need to improve the legislative system of the EIA sector, setting market access standards based on qualification requirements,” he said.