BEIJING (Reuters) - China's environment ministry has been given powers to send inspection teams to provinces and regions across the country as part of its efforts to root out local polluters, the official China Daily newspaper reported on Friday.
The paper said the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) would become only the second national authority, after the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's corruption watchdog, to have the power to send inspection teams and hold discussions with provincial leaders.
Citing Liu Changgen, the head of the National Environmental Protection Inspection Office, China Daily said another 14 provinces would be subject to a central government-led probe following the completion of inspections in heavy industrial Hebei in northern China earlier this year.
China has been trying to strengthen its environmental powers as part of a "war on pollution" launched in 2014 to try to reverse the damage done by decades of untrammeled growth.
A new environmental protection law in force from the beginning of last year gave authorities more powers to punish firms and individuals that persistently break the rules, including the ability to impose unlimited fines and imprison violators.
China has also set up dozens of special environmental tribunals at local courts as well as dedicated regional inspection forces to help implement its laws.
But the MEP has acknowledged that enforcement remains a major challenge, with minister Chen Jining saying in February that Beijing still needed more clout to crack down on polluting firms and the local governments that protect them.
The ministry said last week that Hebei, which has been on the frontline of the war on pollution, had failed to put enough pressure on city-level governments to meet standards.
The ministry said the inspections had revealed that a number of firms in Hebei, home to seven of China's 10 smoggiest cities, had illegally expanded production capacity and engaged in "fraudulent practices".
According to figures published on Thursday, the MEP imposed total fines of 115.97 million yuan ($17.78 million) in the first quarter of this year, up 153 percent on the year, and had closed or suspended production at 301 polluting projects.
"Some regions still have not achieved effective improvements to their environmental quality, and the power of environmental enforcement still needs to be strengthened," the ministry added in a statement on its website (http://www.mep.gov.cn).
It named cities like Pucheng in Shanxi province, Fuyang in Anhui and Urumqi in the far northwestern Xinjiang region as examples, and said it would carry out inspections of the regions at an appropriate time.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Kim Coghill)