Digging in

Beijing finally gets serious about soil pollution

A man points to water and soil which turned red after being contaminated by industrial waste from a closed dye factory, amid heavy rainfall at a mountain in Ruyang county

Not ideal for growing vegetables

China’s air pollution woes are widely understood. Images of streets shrouded in smog and urban residents wearing protective masks are commonplace. But China’s challenges with other less visible forms of pollution are often neglected.

Such has been the case with the Middle Kingdom’s contaminated soil. In May this year the Ministry of Environmental Protection released an action plan in response to the issue; a similar plan for tackling air pollution was released in 2013, and one for water in 2014.

The 10-point blueprint begins fairly simply: point one, expand soil pollution checks so that the authorities can better understand the extent of the problem.

But even this point might be hard to implement, not least because the plan has hardly received any attention.

According to Southern Weekend, when similar action plans were released to address air pollution issues, local governments began responding to them immediately. But it says after the release of the ‘Soil 10 Plan’ many local environmental departments and experts in the field haven’t even read them.

The plan intends to take samples from 200,000 sites across China by 2018 – an operation 20 times larger than the last soil inspection, which took place between 2005 and 2013 and cost Rmb1 billion ($150 million).

The conclusions that the last survey drew were insubstantial, Southern Weekend claims, merely counting what proportion of inspection points scored below the national par (16%).

Besides the apparent disinterest in another round of testing, the authorities also lack the facilities to carry out such a review. Wang Xiahui, who heads the soil protection department at the environment ministry has admitted so himself: “There are a lack of mechanisms, tools and experts at city and county levels to perform these environmental checks; the environmental inspection systems are completely lagging behind.”

Southern Weekend reports that at the provincial level, some governments have given the responsibilities for implementing the ‘Soil 10 Plan’ to pre-existing departments: the capital city Beijing has put it in the hands of its water pollution team; Guangdong has instructed its ecology department to assimilate the plan; and others have slipped it into departments that deal with broader measures of pollution, such as noise pollution.

At a national level the plan doesn’t seem to have been awarded much more prominence either: the China National Environmental Monitoring Centre (CNEMC) only established its ‘soil team’ in January, and so far the group has just three staff members.

There is a precedent for the CNEMC to allow regional governments to outsource environmental inspection work to private enterprises. This might bring a wave of new opportunities to the private sector. And even if the private firms don’t get handed the reigns at the inspection stage, they seem to be gearing up to handle the restorative work once the inspections are over. In 2015 the number of firms offering services in soil restoration nearly doubled, rising from 500 to over 900. This was after a substantial fall in restoration projects during 2014.

Wei Li, the CEO of Beijing GeoEnviron Engineering and Technology (BGE) believes the slump in activity that year followed a decline in the real estate market, because soil restoration work has traditionally avoided arable land, where the profits are too low.

Now, arable land seems to be more of a focal point. The China Daily reports that the Soil 10 Plan calls for 90% of polluted farmland to be made usable by 2020 and that the programme will also provide the funding for the work to be carried out. Perhaps this will make the remediation of arable land more profitable, but with the sudden influx of companies into the market it remains to be seen how many will be capable of completing the clean-up effort.

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