China to launch environmental probes in eight more provinces

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China will send inspection teams to eight more provinces and regions to see how well they are complying with state environment rules and fighting the country’s war on pollution, the environment ministry said.

Residential and business buildings are seen amid thick haze in Kunming, Yunnan province January 18, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Beijing has identified local governments as one of the key battlegrounds in its nationwide anti-pollution efforts, with many accused of turning a blind eye to environmental violations in a bid to protect valuable sources of revenue and jobs.

The latest round of inspections will cover the huge coal-producing regions such as Inner Mongolia and Ningxia in the northwest, the old northeastern industrial heartland of Heilongjiang and the poor rural regions of Yunnan and Guangxi in the southwest.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) was given additional powers to send inspection teams anywhere in the country and demand meetings with senior local officials as part of its efforts to root out polluters. It was only the second Chinese agency to be granted such authority.

“We talk about local government interference in environmental enforcement and these central government investigations can address this problem at the source,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which campaigns on pollution issues in China.

At the end of last year, the government launched a two-month probe of northern Hebei province, one of the country’s most polluted regions, and found that firms had engaged in “fraudulent activities” and were flouting orders not to expand industrial capacity.

In a separate notice, the environment ministry said on Friday that it had fined several state-owned polluters in May for exceeding emission limits. A subsidiary of oil giant PetroChina Co Ltd in the northeastern city of Dalian was fined a total of 2.9 million yuan ($433,644), it said.

The ministry said it had strengthened the way it enforces its rules in a number of regions, and total fines had reached more than 45.3 million yuan in May alone. A total of 230 plants were ordered to stop production over the period.

“We need to recognize the progress made and this is definitely higher than before, but on the other hand, it is still not enough, and is still cheaper than the cost of compliance,” Ma said.

“We also don’t know if in reality the fine will be paid. Many of them are the darlings of local government, which gives them protection,” he said.

($1 = 6.6875 Chinese yuan)

Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Jacqueline Wong