By David Stanway
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Chinese inspectors have accused subsidiaries of state-owned China Minmetals Group of repeatedly violating pollution rules in the major rice-growing province of Hunan, part of a drive by Beijing to force corporate offenders to toe the line.
In an audit published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) on Monday, the inspectors said nonferrous metals producers in Hunan had failed to address a series of violations. Most were units of Minmetals, one of the country's biggest mining and metals trading firms, the audit said.
"Since 2013, the firms have failed to investigate and deal with dozens of cases of environmental violations, making the enterprises 'big corporate bullies' who do not treat environmental problems with importance, do not conduct rectifications and break rules and regulations on a long-term basis," the report said.
China's environment ministry has been engaged in a long struggle for authority over powerful government-backed firms. It has recently stepped up efforts to name and shame companies that don't comply with guidelines on air quality or wastewater treatment.
A spokesman with the Minmetals Group in Beijing did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. Minmetals has total assets of 1.6 trillion yuan ($238 billion) and runs projects in more than 60 countries.
Environmental campaigners welcomed the MEP audit as significant step.
"This statement from the MEP was unreserved and strong," said Ada Kong, senior toxics campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing. "It...shows the MEP is really getting tough on polluters, whether government, business or state-owned industry."
China's latest inspections into provincial environmental compliance were conducted in April and May and covered seven provinces, including Hunan.
The Hunan audit, focusing on the period from 2013 to 2016, accused authorities of allowing environmental protection to "give way" to economic development, saying they "did not dare and did not want" to regulate big industrial polluters.
The province's five-year plan to develop nonferrous metals from 2016 to 2020 remained skewed towards expanding capacity rather than improving the industry's environmental record, the audit said.
The issues stemmed from Hunan's role not only as a leading metals producer, but also a major farming region, it added, describing the interaction between the two industries as "a focal point of environmental problems".
Hunan grows around 30 percent of China's rice, and was at the center of a 2013 scandal involving the sale of rice contaminated with the toxic heavy metal cadmium.
In many regions, wastewater runoffs from mines are used directly to irrigate farmland and its main river, the Xiang, is one of China's most polluted.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)