BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Environment Ministry said on Thursday it will send inspection teams to provinces and cities most seriously affected by smog to ensure rules on fighting air pollution are being enforced.
Air quality in cities is of increasing concern to China's stability-obsessed leaders, anxious to douse potential unrest as a more affluent urban population turns against a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has poisoned much of the country's air, water and soil.
China's smog crisis was thrown back dramatically into the spotlight this week when Harbin, a frigid northeastern city of 11 million people, virtually ground to a halt when a pollution index showed airborne contaminants at around 50 times the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.
The problem was partly blamed on the government turning on the heating for the winter. Collective central heating, activated on a date set by the government, provides heat to 65 percent of Harbin, figures quoted last year in the state media show. Much of that heat comes from burning coal. Beijing's central heating normally comes on in mid-November.
China's government has announced many plans to fight pollution over the years but has made little obvious progress, especially in the country's north and northeast, where coal burning has driven the rapid growth in heavy industrial output.
Enforcing rules has been a particular problem with growth-obsessed local governments and powerful state-owned enterprises often ignoring central government guidelines and even falsifying their emissions data.
The Environment Ministry said on its website (www.zhb.gov.cn) that teams would from now until March visit Beijing and its surrounding regions, the Pearl and Yangtze River deltas, Chengdu, Chongqing and Urumqi, all parts of China which have smog problems.
The teams will ensure that factories have installed the correct equipment to cut emissions of sulphur dioxide, that plants previously closed remain shut and that local governments are enforcing clean air policies, the ministry added.
Factories that have particular problems will have environment inspection teams permanently based on site and legal means will be used to punish companies with particular problems, it said.
Regional environment inspection teams who do not do their jobs properly will be prosecuted and the media will be used to name and shame the most egregious examples of pollution, the ministry added.
The public will also be encouraged to report pollution problems to the ministry, it said.
China published a detailed action plan on tackling air pollution in September, saying it would cut coal consumption and ban new industrial projects like power plants and steel mills in key cities and regions such as Beijing and the Yangtze river delta.
Beijing, sometimes derided as "Greyjing" or "Beige-jing" by English-speaking residents, suffered its own smog emergency last winter when the pollution index reached 45 times the recommended level one particularly bad day in January.
Smoke from factories and heating plants, winds from the Gobi Desert and fumes from millions of vehicles can combine to blanket the city in a pungent shroud for days.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Matt Driskill)