Dozens of agencies that carry out environmental risk assessments for development projects have been punished by the government after an inspection by graft-busters late last year. The Ministry of Environmental Protection said it had barred or limited the work carried out by 63 agencies and 22 assessing staff who were guilty of malpractice. The news follows an inspection by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), which said in February that relatives and friends of some officials at the ministry had "intervened" in reviews or had profited by running environmental risk-assessment agencies. The CCDI did not name the officials but it urged the ministry to reform the environmental impact reviewing system. It said the system was flawed and had increased pollution risks. On the mainland, all industrial projects must undergo environmental impact assessments - which include an assessment of their anti-pollution measures - before they can be approved. Risk-assessment agencies with links to local or central environmental authorities have become popular with developers because their connections can help secure approvals. The CCDI also criticised oversight by environmental authorities, saying this had resulted in poor compliance by project developers. Following the CCDI inspection, Chen Jining, the new environmental minister, pledged in March to cut links to eight agencies affiliated with the ministry by the end of this year. His ministry said two agencies had already become independent, and that by the end of 2016, all assessment agencies would be independent - or have their qualifications revoked. Chen's pledge came a week after Premier Li Keqiang scolded various government departments for delaying approvals to development projects. The premier's intervention came amid figures that showed the country's economy had grown at the slowest rate in six years in the first quarter of 2015. Li said the numerous assessments projects needed to undergo - including those for environmental risks and water consumption - were "a joke". Such assessments can last for up to two years. "Although some of these assessments are necessary, some local government departments do not have enough staff to carry them out swiftly and efficiently," said Li. "Some authorities have ended up outsourcing the tasks to agencies that pocket money from the deals." Some agencies were even used by local governments to thwart the central leadership's order to cut bureaucratic red-tape, Li said. The ministry has checked 450 officials and their families for links to environmental risk-assessment agencies. But some critics said the environmental ministry had failed to tackle the core issue in the flawed environmental review system. They fear that making the assessment agencies independent could prompt staff to leave and cause a drop in quality. The ministry's priority should be to make its process for reviewing assessments open and transparent, they say.