The Environmental Protection Ministry publicly admonished 34 environmental impact assessment agencies on Wednesday after an inspection.
Among the punished agencies, eight had their environmental impact assessment qualification canceled, 24 were ordered to rectify and improve their performances within three months to a year, and two received warnings.
The 24 agencies that have to rectify their performances are not allowed to accept new EIA projects during that period, according to a statement by the ministry.
"That is really serious punishment. It means some agencies will have to suspend their business for a whole year," said a staff member from a large EIA agency in Shanghai, who asked not to be named.
It is the second time that large-scale punishments have been meted out to environmental agencies nationwide.
In January, 88 EIA-qualified agencies received similar admonishment from the ministry, accounting for 18 percent of the 500 agencies whose activities were examined by the ministry between June and October last year. Nationwide, there are 1,159 agencies.
The ministry's latest move is seen by insiders as a signal of the government's determination to end the chaos in the EIA system.
The two investigations exposed similar problems, including poor quality of assessment documents by the agencies and inaccurate data provided by some agencies in an effort to cover up the reality of some situations.
Agencies with good reputations in the industry also appeared on the blacklist, such as Tongji University and the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.
Peking University, which appeared on the blacklist in January, made it onto the list again this time.
Some experts said such investigations and punishments may alarm the EIA agencies for a short time, but may not solve the problems in the EIA industry.
"The key problem is that the EIA agencies are paid by project owners, who only care about getting their projects passed," said Zhao Zhangyuan, a former member of an expert team at the ministry's environmental and engineering appraisal center.
He said local environmental departments should intervene to supervise both EIA agencies and enterprises, so that money does not directly flow between them.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Ministry on Tuesday issued a circular suggesting local governments adopt flexible working hours for enterprises and institutions, and suspend school classes if the highest air pollution warnings are given.
Beijing has already drafted its emergency plan to deal with high levels of pollution.
Cars with odd and even license plates will be allowed on roads on alternating days and schools will close when a red air pollution alert — the highest — is issued.