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By David Stanway

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's environmental watchdog vetoed as many as 32 projects with a total investment of 118.4 billion yuan ($19.5 billion) last year as it stepped up efforts to get tough on industrial polluters, a senior official said on Tuesday.

Zhai Qing, the vice-environment minister, told reporters his ministry was working to improve its environmental assessment capabilities and strengthen its powers to monitor and punish polluters.

"I think our ability to enforce and monitor is extremely important... and since last year, we have been constantly trying to strengthen our abilities," he added.

Beijing is under intense pressure to clean up its heavily polluted air, water and soil in the face of mounting public anger, but enforcement has been identified as one its biggest challenges, with the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) struggling to find the clout to take on powerful industrial interests and growth-obsessed local authorities.

Officials have acknowledged that the ministry's punitive powers are limited. Fines are far lower than the cost of compliance and many big companies are willing to pay up and continue breaking the law.

The ministry is now hoping to extend its authority as China's new leadership promises to abandon the crude pursuit of economic growth. A new environmental law is likely to raise the fines imposed on polluters, and sources say the ministry's powers could be expanded further in a government shake-up expected to take place in March.

Zhai said the ministry had made it a rule not to trust local statistics. Officials are also making use of unmanned aircraft and satellite technology to collect its own pollution data, and its inspection teams were now working more closely with the police to try to force companies to comply, he added.

Inspectors were also showing up unannounced at factories to avoid being misled by company officials.

The ministry imposed "tough punishments" on the regions of Guizhou, Henan and Inner Mongolia last year, and also suspended environmental approvals for projects in six cities as a result of violations, Zhai said.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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