The opening of a new airport in eastern Guangdong next month has been suspended over pending environmental inspections, a setback in the remote region's plans to bring other cities within reach.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection says assessments for land use impact, the location of the runway and sewage facilities at Jieyang Chaoshan airport had not yet been approved.
It ordered the Guangdong Airport Management to halt all work at the completed airport and resubmit documents for approval by the end of this month, or face a fine of up to 200,000 yuan (HK$244,000).
The airport, expected to help boost a local economy that has lagged western Guangdong, is a key provincial infrastructure project.
Acting governor Zhu Xiaodan visited the airport on Monday and local media gave its imminent opening heavy coverage, but a number of Guangdong media outlets said they had been barred from reporting on the suspension.
An airport management spokesman said he was not authorised to comment.
However, experts expressed doubt about the 'toothless' environmental agency's ability to delay the opening of the airport, which took close to 4 billion yuan to build.
Transport expert Zheng Tianxiang questioned the timing of the last-minute suspension, which he said was 'strange'.
'Announcements were made every step of the way during the construction of the airport, how could they not find about this earlier?' Zheng said.
Ma Jun , from the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the ministry had limited manpower to monitor construction projects across the mainland, but that it was intent on curbing companies that 'rushed ahead' with plans before approvals were granted.
'In the past 30 years, environmental impact assessments have failed in their role as gate-keepers on potential environmental hazards from construction because they have largely been seen as nothing more than a formality,' Ma said. 'The ministry of environmental protection should be given more authority. It can at most put a temporary stop to the airport to give it time to complete paperwork. It can't suspend it.'
All major industrial and infrastructure projects on the mainland must undergo environmental assessments before construction begins, but this rule is often ignored. Mainland environmentalists say many government-backed projects are virtually exempt from such provisions.
Projects that have operated without the approval include the new terminals at Beijing international airport, Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, Guangzhou's new Baiyun airport and the high-speed rail link between Qingdao and Jinan.