BEIJING (Reuters) - A lawsuit filed against four Chinese mining executives accused of destroying a stretch of forest is shaping up as a test of China's strengthened environmental law and the ability of green groups to make companies more accountable for their actions.
Environmentalists hope the case will prompt a wave of legal action across China, where discontent is rising over a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has spoiled much of the country's water, skies and soil.
The miners hired workers to clear about two hectares (five acres) of forest on Hulu Mountain in southern Fujian province in 2008 in a bid to extract granite from the mountaintop without a license, according to two environmental groups who filed the suit and Chinese state media reports.
The plaintiffs sued the executives under amendments to the environmental protection law, which took effect on Jan. 1, demanding they fund restoration of the forest to its natural state.
Three of the mining executives were jailed last year for between 14 and 18 months after being convicted of illegally occupying agricultural land. The fourth was not charged in that case but Reuters was unable to contact the executive. It was unclear if the four had lawyers.
The environmental lawsuit, filed at a Fujian court in early January, was the first to be accepted under the new law. A court in eastern Shandong province has since accepted two similar cases.
Liu Xiang, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Reuters he expected the Hulu Mountain lawsuit, which has attracted wide publicity in China, to be heard in March.
"We have a good starting point now. I can use (this law) as a tool to exercise my right of oversight," said Ma Yong, deputy director of the All-China Environment Federation, a body controlled by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
The federation is not a plaintiff in the Hulu Mountain lawsuit, but is involved in the other two cases.
The amendments, the first changes to China's environmental legislation in 25 years, enshrined tougher punishment for polluters as part of China's declared war on pollution. They also apply to acts committed before the changes took effect.
Among the measures, government-registered organisations that meet certain criteria can sue polluters.
In addition, China's Supreme Court said last month it would give environmental groups the power to sue before any pollution had occurred if they could show that a particular activity could threaten the public interest.
The court also said a plaintiff's litigation costs, including legal fees, could be borne by the defendant.
Wu Anxiang, a second lawyer for the plaintiffs, said there was enough evidence to show the executives were responsible for the forest's destruction.
Photographs obtained by Reuters from one of the plaintiffs, Fujian Green Home, show a naked peak and slabs of stone stacked along one of its ridges. The other plaintiff is Friends of Nature, a Beijing-based group.
The executives worked for Hulu Mountain Sand Base Hengxing Stone Factory, according to Friends of Nature and Chinese state media. It was not possible to contact the factory, which has no website nor publicly available phone number.
Chinese courts have previously rejected many environmental lawsuits because there was no framework to clarify who was eligible to sue. In 2013, courts turned down 10 lawsuits filed by Friends of Nature and the All-China Environment Federation.
The courts said the law didn't specify whether they belonged to the "relevant" organisations that could sue, said Zhang Bojun, director of Friends of Nature.
Environmentalists say they believe the amendments were passed because the ruling Communist Party is aware of the growing public anger over pollution. Environmental protection is likely to be a major topic at next month's annual parliament session.
"I think based on the current political viewpoint, we should be successful," said Liu, the lawyer.
Liu said it could cost 1 to 2 million yuan ($160,061 to $320,123) to restore the forest based on an assessment from an ecological expert.
Ge Feng, head of the Friends of Nature legal team, said she hoped the case would spur other environmental organisations to file public interest lawsuits.
Despite the changed legal parameters, local governments are likely to pressure courts not to go hard on industries that drive their economies, some experts said.
"The fundamental problem is how to make the courts stop being selective about what cases they accept," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-governmental organization.
"In terms of using the judiciary to solve China's environmental problems, we still have a long way to go."
($1 = 6.2476 Chinese yuan)
Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Dean Yates