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Social enterprise measures emissions with drones and data visualization
Calling themselves the "Airmen", a group of young volunteers vows to bring back the blue skies by ferociously battling air pollution as grassroots inspectors.
Founded in 2014, Airman Environmental Technology is a nonprofit social enterprise that carries out third-party monitoring and investigation of the industrial release of toxic pollutants, actively assists governmental inspections and provides advice for the green transformation of industries during China"s war on air pollution.
In recent years, the team has conducted independent inspections in more than 90 cities throughout the country, pushing for more than 500 companies to rectify their production methods and implement reforms toward an environmentally friendly upgrade, according to the team"s statement submitted for a SEE Award nomination, a privately funded prize for ecological achievements nationwide.
According to Zhao Liang, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit, the Airman team first began their survey with no more than "a sense of smell, a pair of eyes and a cellphone with a real-time pollution detection app installed".
Gradually, they mastered advanced technologies to measure contaminants by employing drones and data visualization.
The team is regarded by local conservationists as one of the leading third-party air-quality assessor-advisors in the country, or "pollution detectives".
Zhao recalled waking up in an open field with his face covered in dark dust from the furnaces of a steel factory that he had been monitoring.
In 2014, many industries increased production activities at night when environmental inspectors were off duty, and volunteers had to stay up all night to carry out technical surveillance of the emissions.
Back then, heavy smog associated with coal, steel and winter heating industries in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region posed a grave threat to both human health and the environment.
In 2013, China launched the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan in an attempt to crack down on industrial pollution, and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region now has more blue-sky days thanks to it.
In 2017, the Airmen joined a third-party expert team to look into an airborne sulfur dioxide pollution scandal in Linfen in northwestern Shanxi province. They later provided an independent report on the hazardous contamination based on UAV aerial filming and data processing technologies.
The investigation led to officials in Linfen being summoned by the country"s top environmental body, and approval of new projects in the city were suspended. Linfen"s mayor apologized for the lethal pollution, saying that he was "deeply sorry" and promised to take stricter action to reduce emissions.
In another case, the Airmen inspected and reported a steel plant in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, to the top environmental watchdog. The plant had been releasing industrial waste into the air and the Yangtze River.
Under governmental and public pressure, Jiujiang Ping Iron and Steel has gone through tremendous changes since then. It is now working on building an "ecological forest factory" and has applied for a 4A rating as a State-level tourist attraction.
While battling irresponsible polluters, the Airmen have also worked to raise public awareness of the consequences of air pollution, and have encouraged more people to take part in the surveillance and scrutiny.
Since 2017, the Airmen have organized a series of awareness campaigns, inviting every Chinese citizen to take photos of the sky from where they are standing and to share their images on social media, in an effort to draw greater attention to air quality.
Exhibitions of these photos are displayed across China, with the Airmen and local volunteers giving lectures and workshops on air pollution and the actions that people can take if they spot unusual industrial waste discharge.
The expert team also works with other charities to promote green lifestyle activities such as cycling, veganism and wildlife protection. The volunteers are often invited to give talks or host events in schools, teaching young children to care for the environment as "Airkids".
This year, the "defenders of the blue sky" have made ambitious plans to assist the central government in a new round of environmental inspections in the Fen-Wei mining region in Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, as well as establishing long-term collaborations between the public and the government in cracking down on illegal industrial waste discharge and winning the war on air pollution.
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