SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China has punished firms in the provinces of Shandong and Hebei, suspending operations and detaining employees after pollution inspection teams were impeded and apprehended while carrying out their duties, the environment ministry said on Tuesday.
China has identified law enforcement as one of the biggest priorities in its three-year long "war on pollution", but local governments are still struggling to crack down on firms that flout standards and regulations.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) said inspectors in Jinan, the capital of Shandong, were detained for an hour on Sunday by employees of the Shandong Lujie Environmental Protection Co Ltd. The firm manufacturers energy-efficient boilers and kilns but was accused of using obsolete equipment and exceeding emissions standards.
The firm was forced to suspend production and undergo "rectification" on Sunday night, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) said in a notice. Four people are now being investigated for impeding inspections.
A sales manager with the firm confirmed the company had already suspended operations, but denied the charge that they had deliberately prevented inspectors from doing their job.
"It was just that they came on a Sunday, and they weren't wearing environmental protection department uniforms or driving special law enforcement vehicles," he said. "Our chairman thought they weren't genuine, and had come to swindle us."
In Xingtai in Hebei, one of China's smoggiest cities, the ministry said two people were also detained after environmental inspectors had their credentials "seized" by employees of a firm accused of violating pollution regulations.
The two cities have been ordered to conduct investigations into the two incidents and impose the appropriate punishment.
The ministry has embarked on what it has described as its biggest inspection campaign in history as it bids to ensure it meets its 2017 pollution targets following a substantial deterioration in air quality in the first two months of the year.
By Friday last week, the ministry's 28 inspection teams had already investigated 1,335 companies, with 917, or 68.7 percent of the total, found to be in violation of state environmental standards, according to Reuters calculations.
The environment ministry has also been investigating regulatory lapses on the part of local governments, and last week accused Beijing officials of failing to take responsibility and blaming pollution on "external factors".
Reporting by David Stanway and the Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore