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By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING, April 24 (Reuters) - China on Thursday passed amendments to an environmental protection law imposing tougher penalties on polluters in the most sweeping revisions to the law in 25 years amid mounting public anger over pollution.
The much-anticipated amendments follow a two-year debate among scholars, the government and state-owned enterprises over changes to the environmental protection law.
The amendments enshrine environmental protection as the overriding priority of the government, but fall short of calls by non-governmental organisations to allow all such groups to file lawsuits against polluters.
The amendments were passed by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's largely rubberstamp parliament, and take effect on Jan. 1, 2015.
They include provisions to help the government impose rules on powerful industrial interests. In contrast, the environmental legal code in the past was focused on growth, said legal experts.
Xin Chunying, deputy director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, told a news conference the law would deliver "a blow ... to our country's harsh environmental realities".
The changes give legal backing to Beijing's newly declared war on pollution and formalise a pledge made last year to abandon a decades-old growth-at-all-costs economic model that has spoiled much of China's water, air and soil.
Although enforcement is likely to be patchy, the law will give the Ministry of Environmental Protection the authority to take stronger punitive action, including shutting down and confiscating the assets of polluters. It also would ensure that information on environmental monitoring and impact assessments are made public.
"On the whole, there are many bright spots," said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, an independent environmental group.
"The biggest breakthrough is ... that (they) have used a professional document to talk about the disclosure of environmental information and public participation. This, in fact, establishes some of the public's basic environmental rights."
The rules also impose an "ecological red line" that will declare certain regions off-limits to polluting industry and formalises a system by which local officials are assessed according to their record on pollution, including meeting targets.
The rules reflect rising concern about widespread degradation of the environment. News of hazardous pollution in air, food, soil and water have become common in recent years. Pollution has triggered protests on several occasions.
The government moved to beef up the law because it wants "to try and channel public dissatisfaction with environmental harms away from mass protests and toward the more contained channels of law", said Erin Ryan, an Oregon-based law professor at the Lewis & Clark Law School, who has studied Chinese governance and its environmental laws.
"The rule of law has always been a useful tool for channeling public dissatisfaction away from more destructive means of expression - peasants with pitchforks and the like," she said in emailed comments.
One of the most fiercely contested parts of the law was a clause designed to prevent most environmental non-governmental organisations from filing lawsuits against polluters.
The first draft said lawsuits could only be filed via the government-affiliated All-China Environmental Federation, though the final version allows other government-registered organisations that have been operating for at least five years and are registered with the civil affairs departments of governments in certain cities to launch legal action.
"The function and role of public interest litigation is firstly to supervise environmental violations and be an important means for the public to monitor," said Yuan Jie, the head of the office for administrative law of parliament's legislative affairs commission. (Additional reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Robert Birsel)