Li Mingshuo, an individual engaged in granite mining, obtained a mining license, but failed to obtain a permit to occupy forestland for mining operations. At one point he expanded operations without approval, and transferred his mining rights without approval to Xie Zhijin, Ni Mingxiang and Zheng Shijiang. The latter three quarried the top of a mountain in the area and dumped waste materials downhill, causing severe damage to the forest. They also built a workers’ shed on forest land. They were found guilty of illegal appropriation of agricultural land and sentenced to imprisonment on 28 July 2014. On 13 November 2014, a third-party, the Yanping District Land Resources Bureau, issued a notice of payment for the restoration of the forest and mining site. Two social organizations, Friends of Nature and the Fujian Green House, were plaintiffs in this related civil litigation. The court of first instance found all four defendants liable for the cost of restoration as well as interim damages. The latter three defendants appealed on grounds of standing, liability, and damage valuation. The original judgement was sustained.
- Were plaintiffs qualified as social organizations to bring an environmental public-interest lawsuit (EPIL): China’s EPIL law provides that social organizations can bring suits on behalf of the public interest if they are (1) registered; and (2) specialized in environmental protection public-interest activities for five or more consecutive years. Both Friends of Nature and the Fujian Green House were duly registered as non-enterprise private entities engaged in non-profit social service activities related to the environment. While Friends of Nature had not technically been registered for five years at the time of filing, it had been engaged in environmental protection activities prior to registration totaling five years. Both thus had standing to file the case.
- Should defendants bear tort liability for damage to the environment: Although Li Mingshuo signed a contract to transfer his mining rights, the contract was ineffective without approval of the competent authorities. Furthermore, Li Mingshuo expanded operations without authorization. Violations of administrative law or negligence on the part of the local authorities do not absolve this liability. All four defendants are jointly and severally liable for forest restoration, to the extent individual liability cannot be determined.
- Can damages for interim loss of service functions during recovery be sustained: Interim losses are provided for in the Supreme People’s Court’s “EPIL Interpretation,” which became effective during the initial trial and is thus applicable. In addition to the cost of forest restoration, defendants are jointly responsible for interim losses during recovery, including the value of lost carbon retention caused by the destruction of vegetation.
- Are the Yanping District Land Resources Bureau and Forestry Bureau civilly liable for organizing restoration work: The two Bureaus are not responsible as they have no civil legal relationship to the case. Although charged with enforcing forestry and land protection laws, they have only administrative authority.