BEIJING/SHANGHAI, June 27 (Reuters) - China will soon begin dispatching teams of inspectors to its provinces and regions in a new nationwide probe into environmental compliance, with the performance of state-owned firms one of its big priorities, an official said on Thursday.
The first round of inspections saw thousands of government and state enterprise officials held to account, with many given official reprimands and a small number subjected to criminal punishments.
Zhai Qing, Vice Minister of Ecology and Environment, told a press briefing on Thursday that preparation work has been completed and they were now waiting for the go-ahead to launch a second round of regional inspections focusing on state-owned enterprises and government ministries.
Zhai said the central government will carry out several rounds of inspections covering all regions of China over 2019-2021, and then in 2022 hold "reviews" into how those violations have been rectified.
"No matter what company they are, what size of the company they are, as long as they violate environmental rules, we will strictly investigate and deal with them," he said.
The environment ministry last month publicly accused dozens of firms, including subsidiaries of some its biggest state enterprises like China Baowu Steel Group and the Aluminum Corporation of China of exceeding pollution limits.
New guidelines published this month have created a standing army of environmental inspectors now responsible for identifying violations nationwide and supervising efforts to rectify them.
China's Premier Li Keqiang launched a "war on pollution" in 2014 to reverse the damage done to the country's skies, water and soil after more than three decades of breakneck industrial growth.
President Xi Jinping has also identified the environment as a major political priority, and he promised last year to use the full might of the Chinese Communist Party to resolve the country's environmental problems.
The central government environmental inspection teams were first launched at the end of 2015 with the full authority of the Communist Party's top leadership, reflecting concerns that the environment ministry itself was not powerful enough to tackle the problems on its own.
Led by retired senior ministers, they were sent out to every province and region, starting in the pollution hotspot of Hebei province, to check how well China's policies and standards were being enforced.
They were modeled on China's regional anti-corruption task forces, and were given powers to conduct spot checks anywhere and without warning, and to summon any local government or company official of any rank to explain their record on pollution.
"(Environmental inspectors) must confront the hard tasks in earnest and not be afraid of offending people... and never let violators off the hook without resolving the problem," said Zhai.
(Reporting by Muyu Xu and David Stanway; editing by Christian Schmollinger)