A draft amendment to the Environmental Protection Law would restrict the filing of public interest lawsuits to a government-affiliated body, casting doubt on the integrity of the much-anticipated legislation.
The amendment received the second of its three scheduled reviews yesterday by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
The law as amended would allow only the All-China Environment Federation and its provincial-level subsidiaries the right to file pollution-related lawsuits in the public interest, China National Radio said.
The clause has sparked outrage among grass-roots green groups and environmental lawyers, who are calling the proposed move "an unprecedented about-face", as it contradicts previous government vows to punish polluters through legal means. Even environmental officials have doubts.
Bie Tao , an official with the Ministry of Environmental Protection's Policy and Law Department, said the clause was aimed at clarifying "who can sue", after the concept of public interest litigation was first legalised in August via an amendment to the Civil Procedure Law.
"But personally, I think that specifying only one organisation [will not] meet the nation's legal demands in tackling environmental grievances," he said by phone. "As far as I know, the federation has only about seven or eight branches at the local level."
Suggesting alternative options, he said: "The scope [of public-interest claimants] could be expanded … and legally registered environmental groups could also have the right to sue."
Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun , who is familiar with pollution cases, said the clause would "effectively close the door on civil efforts to fight polluters".
"Designating a single claimant by law - this is unprecedented," Xia said. "It is acceptable for a government-backed organisation to take a lead or demonstrate such litigation for other grass-roots NGOs, but monopolising the practice is going too far."
The All-China Environment Federation lodged dozens of lawsuits against polluters on behalf of victims since 2009 and had won several of them, its official website said.
Friends of Nature said in a letter yesterday to the NPC's Standing Committee that the amendment would give the federation unwarranted authority, while also discriminate against other NGOs.
The letter also warns that implementing such restrictions is likely to deepen a crisis of trust among the public in the mainland's legal system, in regard to addressing environmental disputes, and that the clause could threaten social stability.
Fewer than 1 per cent of environmental disputes have been settled through judicial channels since 1996, while the number of environment-related "mass incidents", involving displays of public outrage, grew by an average of 29 per cent a year between 1996 and last year, a retired official with the environmental ministry told state media earlier this year.
Xia speculated that a reason behind the proposed law could be that grass-roots NGOs are thriving, and their growing expertise in handling environmental lawsuits is making officials uncomfortable.
"In many cases, grass-roots NGOs such as Friends of Nature have been trying to sue the polluters after the environment ministry or local governments already announced that they've settled the disputes," Xia and. "Such tenacity makes authorities quite embarrassed."