BEIJING, Jan 16 (Reuters) - China shut down 8,347 heavily polluting companies last year in northern Hebei province, which has the worst air in the country, state news agency Xinhua said on Thursday, as the government moves to tackle a problem that has been a source of discontent.
Local authorities will block new projects and punish officials in regions where pollution is severe due to lax enforcement, Xinhua cited Yang Zhiming, deputy director of the Hebei provincial bureau of environmental protection, as saying.
High pollution levels have sparked widespread public anger and officials concerned about social unrest have responded by implementing tougher policies.
Hebei, the country's biggest steel producer, is home to as many as seven of its 10 most polluted cities, Xinhua said, citing statistics published monthly by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Pollution in Hebei often spreads to neighbouring Beijing and Tianjin. On Thursday, Beijing was blanketed in its worst smog in months. An index measuring PM2.5 particles, especially bad for health, reached 500 in much of the capital in the early hours.
Some small high-polluting plants are being relocated to remote areas to avoid oversight, Xinhua quoted Yang as saying. He said the government would "beef up the industrial crackdown".
China has drawn up dozens of laws and guidelines to improve the environment but has struggled to enforce them in the face of powerful enterprises.
On Wednesday, China's commercial capital, Shanghai, introduced emergency measures, allowing it to shut schools and order cars off the road in case of severe smog.
Hebei plans to slash crude steel output by 15 million tonnes in 2014 and cut coal consumption by the same amount as part of anti-pollution measures. (Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ron Popeski)