China recently released some findings from its survey of air and water pollution sources. The most striking fact was the significant impact of agricultural non-point sources on water pollution levels. Air and water (at least surface water) pollution which are easily observed generate more attention than pollution of the soil, yet once you stop the sources of air and surface water pollution, those resources return to pre-pollution states fairly quickly. The same can not be said for soil and sediment contamination. Stopping the source of pollutants to the soil does not return the soil to the status quo ante; without active remediation the soil will remain contaminated for decades, even centuries, depending on the pollutant. Soil contamination is a problem because it reduces crop yields, taints the food supply, and creates a source of pollution of ground and surface water.
China initiated its first soil pollution survey in 2006 with a budget of 1 billion yuan. The survey is designed “to assess soil quality across the country by analyzing the amount of heavy metals, pesticide residue and organic pollutants in the soil.” The results of the survey were supposed to have been released at the end of 2009, but they were not. It is unclear whether they will be released this year. Nevertheless, some experts have “estimated one fifth, or about 20 million hectares, of China’s arable land had been polluted.” (See China’s Heavy Metal Problem http://www.chinaenvironmentallaw.com/2009/11/11/chinas-heavy-metal-problem/).
Soil pollution is caused by both industrial discharges (through direct discharges to the soil and through deposition of industrial air pollutants (such as mercury) on the soil) and agricultural activities. Indeed, as with water pollution, it is becoming clearer that China’s agricultural sector is a major contributor to soil contamination. A new study published by Science magazine underscores the seriousness of the soil pollution problem.
In some select areas “soils are approaching pH values at which potentially toxic metals such as Al and manganese (Mn) could be mobilized,” the authors write, concluding that “overall, anthropogenic acidification driven by [nitrogen] fertilization is at least 10 to 100 times greater than that associated with acid rain.”
China’s environmental regulatory apparatus is in the process of attempting to develop a comprehensive framework for the regulation of soil pollution. The current scheme consisting of a few obscure notices 1 and generally ignored soil standards is clearly inadequate to the task. A new Soil Pollution Prevention Law has reportedly been drafted and received expert feedback. It has now been submitted to the “relevant departments for comments.” It is not clear whether the reference to “relevant departments” refers to the various internal departments of the Ministry of Environmental Protection or other ministries which may have some stake in the issue. Both steps are preludes to the eventual passage of the law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Combined with the draft Guidelines for Risk Assessment of Contaminated Sites that was released last year for comment, this news indicates that the efforts to develop a soil pollution legal framework are moving forward.
Photo: Yang Xi/China Foto Press
- Although the Environmental 5-Year Plan refers to a requirement that “Relocating enterprises must remedy the contaminated soil at the original site and carry out comprehensive treatment for arable land where POPs and heavy metal pollutants exceeding national standard,” this requirement is not effectively enforced. ↩