The fire-starters

Forceful academics – dubbed the “incinerationists” – are promoting waste-to-energy plants in China. But, says Meng Dengke, winner of the “investigative journalism” category in the China Environmental Press Awards, these experts’ corporate links are raising doubts about their motives.

This article was originally published by Southern Weekend on December 3, 2009.

Cartoon by Liang Weichi

As controversy over waste-incineration projects has raged across China, Nie Yongfeng, a professor at Tsinghua University’s department of environmental science and engineering, has come to represent the “incinerationists”, or garbage-burning lobby, in the public eye. Now at the centre of the debate, he finds himself accused of supporting the technology for his own benefit.

It seems Nie does not have the time to worry about such suspicions. “I’ve been busy preparing two reports, and I’m going to Japan on Wednesday,” he said, when contacted by this paper. Last week, he repeatedly refused a more in-depth interview with the Southern Weekend on grounds that he was “too busy”.

However, organisers of the Advanced Forum on Solid Waste Industry are expecting his attendance in seven days time, when he will give a speech on “the application and future development of technology to handle airborne incineration ash”.

This is the third time that the forum is being held. It is run by website and Tsinghua University’s Department of Environmental Science and Engineering, but all the signs indicate it is not purely an academic event.

Organiser Peng Hong says: “We invite some government officials, the heads of several major design institutes and experts such as Nie Yongfeng and Xu Haiyun for free. We charge some companies, small engineering institutes and research bodies.” Attendees pay a fee of 2,000 yuan (US$293), not including food or accommodation. “We’ve already got over 300 companies and other bodies signed up,” says Peng.

During the two-day conference, representatives of all interested parties will have the chance to make a speech. But, apart from invited officials and experts, speakers will have to pay a fee of at least 18,000 yuan (US$2,636). According to Peng Hong, this is “great value for money”. “Registration alone at a conference specifically for overseas solid-waste firms would normally cost 18,000 yuan, let alone making a speech,” she says. “So far more than a dozen people have applied to speak, including waste-furnace manufacturers from Japan and Europe. And the list is still growing.”

The organisers even offer “tailored services” for major customers, where they set up small-scale meetings with business figures, experts and officials. Charges for this are “agreed in accordance with the company’s specific needs”.

All of this money goes to an organisation called Beijing Golden City Science & Technology Development. “We’re a private firm, founded by academics from Tsinghua University, with a background in government environmental protection,” says Peng.

Information from the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce reveals that the company’s legal representative is Fu Tao, who is indeed deputy professor and researcher at Tsinghua’s Environmental Management and Policy Institute, deputy head and secretary of the national environmental services chamber of commerce and also chief editor of water-industry website, which just happens to be a “sister site” to

Sighing when he hears this, one environmentalist says that – despite monitoring the sector for some time – he had understood to be a government or NGO website. “Many more people are likely to make the same mistake, particularly among the general public,” he says.

Perhaps these financial arrangements are the norm among the wide range of forums that take place in China today. But the controversy surrounding waste incineration has led to particular suspicion over this event.

The majority of experts on the organisers’ list are “incinerationists”. Alongside Nie Yongfeng are Xu Wenlong, director of the China Urban Construction Design and Research Institute (CUCD), and the body’s chief engineer, Xu Haiyun. “There’s no need to listen to the speeches because you know they’re going to speak in favour of incineration – obviously the website is just their mouthpiece,” says Zhao Zhangyuan, a retired professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Zhao is seen as one of the leaders of the anti-incineration lobby, but he was not invited to take part in the forum. “I’m against incineration, so of course they couldn’t have me speak to all of those companies,” he says.

Institutes or companies?

The anti-incineration lobby sees Tsinghua’s environmental-science department as the enemy’s home camp. All public support for the technology appears to have some link back to the centre. Nie is considered the pro-incineration authority and Peking University professor Liu Yangsheng and CUCD’s Xu Haiyun – who together set the standard for a 300-metre exclusion zone around incinerators in Beijing – are both Nie’s former students.

Nie’s current and past academic titles are numerous: director of Tsinghua University’s Solid Waste Pollution Control and Utilisation Institute; head of research at a centre under the State Environmental Protection Administration; deputy chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences’ solid-waste committee; and consultant on environment and sanitation to Beijing’s municipal government. The list goes on.

He also has another, often-overlooked, role as head of the solids office at the Beijing Guohuan Tsinghua Environmental Engineering Design and Research Institute (or “Guohuan” for short). There, he is responsible for approving technical documents for the institute’s engineering contracts.

Recently, this institute has been embroiled in problems stemming from the environmental-impact report for a waste-to-power plant at A Su Wei, in northern Beijing. Ms Che, a volunteer from the nearby neighbourhood of Aobei, told me something surprising: Nie’s institute is not actually qualified to carry out environmental-impact assessments.

Although its website proudly displays certification from the Ministry of Environmental Protection saying it is allowed to carry out such reports, closer inspection reveals that the certificate actually belongs to Tsinghua University and its department of environmental science. “But the head of that department, Xu Gangze, made it clear to us that the A Su Wei report was nothing to do with them,” says Ms Che. “He knew nothing about the project.”

In reality, the certificate is used by an “environmental-impact assessment office”, headed by deputy head of the department, Wang Chengwen. But, according to its deputy, Yang Weiguo, “The office doesn’t physically exist.”

So what is the link between this “office” and the Guohuan institute? Southern Weekend’s investigation found that the “institute” is not actually a scientific body at all. Its full name is “Beijing Guohuan Tsinghua Environmental Engineering Design and Research Institute Co. Ltd” And its legal representative is none other than Wang Chengwen. On the website, however, there is no indication that it is a “company”. It is simply presented as a research institute.

Yang Weiguo admits that Guohuan itself is not accredited to carry out these assessments, saying that the certification belongs to the environmental-impact assessment office, and that “there is overlap in personnel between the office and Guohuan”.

There are secrets behind this name confusion. Southern Weekend obtained a memo to Guohuan, dated August, 2009, from the owner of the A Su Wei project, Beijng Huayuan Huizhong. The document says that Guohuan “Agrees to your company’s (Huayuan Huizhong’s) method of jointly presenting the environmental-impact report as having been completed by Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Meterological Sciences.”

Residents near A Su Wei have been waiting for Tsinghua to respond to their concerns since August. “We’ve been in touch with the assessing body three times, but we still haven’t seen the expert who wrote the report,” says Ms Che.

Further investigation uncovered Tsinghua’s involvement in a similar case several years ago. In 2001, the State Environmental Protection Agency suspended Tsinghua’s certification for three months after two reports from the previous year were rejected by an expert committee due to “a lack of evidence for conclusions, incomplete engineering analysis and poor quality”.

Beijng’s Gao’antun waste-to-energy plant has come in for even fiercer criticism. The incinerator has been conducting trial operations since July 2008, in spite of the fact its environmental-impact report – again produced by Guohuan – has not yet been accepted.

One environmentalist is blunt: “It is not just Tsinghua that is causing this confusion in the solid-waste sector. Many so-called “institutes” or academic bodies are engaging in corporate activities.” And the non-expert public is often taken in.

But the influence of these experts goes even further.

The 7th Solid Waste Advanced Salon, held in March, 2009, is often brought up by opponents of incineration. The event was also organised by Tsinghua’s department of environmental science and and included the familiar faces – advocates such as Nie Yongfeng, Xu Wenloing and Xu Haiyun and, of course, dozens of company representatives.

This meeting caused particular uproar due to some of the hard-line views expressed: the public are ignorant and obstructionist; the media reports are confused and sensationalist; the government should make full use of the legal system to put an end to local disruptions in the interests of the wider good, if necessary relocating residents rather than the incinerators.

The theme of the meeting was “strategic consideration of and suggestions for waste processing in Beijing”. The public initially thought it was an academic meeting but the views expressed were one-sided, with a distinct lack of dissenting voices. Just five days later, Beijing released plans for more incinerators, ending more than a year of silence on the matter that had followed the Liulitun incident.

“It shows their power to influence policy,” says one environmentalist. “And that’s the reason the incineration firms flock around the experts.” Indeed, Nie Yongfeng, Xu Wenlong and Xu Haiyun also sit on the expert committee at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development that is largely responsible for setting industry standards for waste incineration.

In 2007, Beijing set a requirement for a 300-metre safety zone around incinerators. Critics said this figure had been chosen specifically to allow the Liulitun plant, where the nearest residential area is about 500 metres away, to go ahead. Zhao Zhangyuan fiercely opposed this move at the expert hearing: “It started off at 1,000 metres, then changed to 800 and then 700. This impacts public health and safety and we need long-term observation to confirm mathematical models.” An impassioned argument broke out between Zhao and proposer of the changes – Nie Yongfeng. The 300-metre limit was not passed at that meeting but several months later it nevertheless appeared in government documents.

The “incinerationists” do not limit their work to influencing government policy. Sometimes, they also help the government persuade the public. While there might be nothing wrong with that, the public have gradually come to see the experts as the “troublemakers”.

Public anger at the choice of experts to attend a press conference about an incineration plant in Panyu, Guangdong, in October 2009 led to a walking protest in November. One of the experts, Shu Chengguang, is vice president of the China division of US firm Covanta Energy. Covanta is the world’s largest waste-to-energy firm and has a poor reputation back in the United States. Two years ago, it began making vigorous efforts to break into the waste market in the Pearl River delta.

But it is not the expert support for incineration that makes the public most angry, it is the doubts about why they are offering that support. And so far, those doubts have not been answered.

Needless to say, Nie Yongfeng was one of the four experts at the Panyu press conference. Angry citizens started looking into his background and found that he had applied for a patent for a type of domestic-waste incinerator in 2000. As soon as this fact was revealed, he was accused of being an “interested party”.

One member of the public, Mao Da, who has a doctorate in environmental history from Beijing Normal University, became interested in the history of Nie’s academic research.

Mao found that, between 1995 and 1998, most of Nie’s articles were about prevention of pollution from landfill. In 1998, he wrote in a paper for China Solid Waste Management and Reduction that “Development of incineration in China is limited due to the large investment needed, high running costs and strict operational requirements.”

But after staying silent throughout 1999, Nie made a u-turn. In “An Investigation into the Development of China’s Urban Waste Incineration Technology”, he wrote that “Incineration technology reduces the quantity of waste, makes it harmless and turns it into a resource. It is one of the first choices for rubbish processing in China . . .and will become the main technology used for handling waste in China’s major cities and coastal centres.”

Mao Da describes the year 2000 as a watershed for Nie’s research. It was also the year he applied for the incinerator patent and the public cannot help but link the two. A look at the research of several “incinerationists” shows that they have made similar academic journeys: starting out with fairly conservative views on incineration but, at some point, suddenly changing their academic stance.

Dedicated netizens found 25 patents filed with the national intellectual-property office bearing Nie’s name, the bulk of them connected to waste incineration and all applied for after 2000. And, as the number of patents increased, Nie’s pro-incineration stance hardened.

While many members of the public are happy to accuse Nie of taking advantage of his academic position for profit, Mao is more careful. “The moral accusations are speculation but, at the least, he hasn’t been scientific,” he says.

“You would expect these so-called experts to be locked in debate. But they’re all in agreement, it isn’t healthy,” says Zhao Zhangyuan.

Zhao, whose background is in water environments, has been accused of “not being a specialist”. But this retired professor has become a leader of the anti-incineration camp. “There is no shortage of officials and academics with different opinions but few of them speak out,” he says. He cannot understand why.

But it seems no amount of obscure academic debate or exposure of these experts’ vested interests can halt the rapid advance of the incineration industry. Advocates of incineration say that 2008 to 2015 will be a golden age for waste-fired power generation. The public suspects that the real beneficiaries will be these experts’ wallets.

Meng Dengke is reporter at Southern Weekend and winner of the “investigative journalism” category in the China Environmental Press Awards, jointly organised by chinadialogue, The Guardian and Tencent.

This article was originally published by Southern Weekend on December 3, 2009.

Homepage image from huangma