Across the mainland, many once grimy industrial cities have enjoyed a makeover. Where countless factories once stood, now there are towering office blocks, luxury apartments and underground shopping malls. The air, usually, is cleaner and there are parks and tree-lined roads.
But out of sight – in the soil, and in the water table – lurks a menacing legacy. The factories may have closed or moved away, but they left the ground where they once stood soaked with toxic chemicals.
Nearly every big city was affected by industrial contamination during three decades of relentless modernisation. Millions of people now live on tainted land – and most of them know nothing about it.
The government has done a nationwide survey to estimate the extent of the problem and a 100-billion yuan (HK$122 billion) five-year remediation plan will follow the survey. The ambitious programme to deal with the toxic soil may not clean up all former industrial sites, but it will raise public awareness of the issue – and create many business opportunities and hundreds of thousands of jobs, environmental experts say.
Science and Technology Daily reported that the survey found that the total contaminated land covers about 200,000 square kilometres – twice the size of Iceland. The paper described it as a “ticking time bomb” that threatens everything from food safety to public health.
Those facing perhaps the greatest risk are farmers who built houses, ploughed fields and used water from wells directly exposed to dozens of harmful heavy metals and chemicals such as chromium and benzene.
Urban residents are not spared. The costly apartment they bought with their life savings could be sitting on the site of a former chemical plant, whose pollutants seeped deeply into the soil and could still pose a long-term health threat if not diagnosed early.
The larger the city, the more likely it is to have been home to polluting factories. More than a dozen regions, including the Beijing and Shanghai areas were rated by the survey as being in “serious need” of immediate remedial action, according to the China Securities Journal.
New business districts in large cities usually have the most expensive property. But an apartment block or office centre standing on land found by the survey to be tainted could see its value drop sharply when the government makes the report public, one official told the newspaper.
Flats in Jinmaofu, a high-end compound at Fuchengmen, near Beijing’s third ring road, are valued at more than 50,000 yuan per square metre. But a state-owned pesticide factory once stood on the site, according to a report in Caijing Magazine last week.
A cover-up would only make matters worse and more than one unnamed official told mainland media that state leaders were now aware of the effect of toxic soil on the economy and public health. They had called for urgent and massive action.
Officials said the results of the survey would soon be made public but did not say whether the release of information would be partial or complete. A final draft of the plan is with the State Council, pending approval.
The biggest push for action has come from environmental authorities. The Ministry of Environmental Protection not only led the survey but drafted most of the recovery plan, officials said.
There is a potential upside to the problem. Thousands of firms are likely to benefit from the clean-up. Many are start-ups featuring advanced soil remediation technology developed locally or overseas.
But the costs would be high, environment researchers said. The government could not possibly finance the entire project, they said, so private investors would probably be offered tax breaks or subsidies.
Beijing has already started to take action, according to Professor Lei Mei , a soil expert at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
She said environmental inspectors would now test land for contamination before it was developed. Property developers would then be required to remove all polluted soil before construction began.
Tainted soil would go to specified dump areas. A real estate project could easily generate more than 100,000 cubic metres of waste soil.
Lei said soil treatment companies were experimenting with new methods of biological remediation. One of these involved planting ferns on a site, which could absorb toxins from the soil.
“But [soil clean-up] is a very long and costly procedure,” Lei said. “We will need lots of people, lots of companies, lots of money and lots of patience to see some results.”
People living on untreated industrial sites face health threats ranging from skin rashes to cancer. It is not known whether the government will publish its findings on developed areas because it could trigger panic.
Scientific data on residents living in high-rise flats on the mainland remains scarce.
But those living in suburban townhouses have long faced such threats. Since the 1970s, researchers in the United States and other developed countries have compiled strong evidence of public health issues related to contaminated soil.
While Beijing has imposed relatively rigorous regulations on handling toxic soil, the wider issue of the threat to public health has been ignored or covered up on the mainland.
Research by CAS’ Institute of Soil Sciences showed that a large quantity of untreated toxic soil has been reused since 2000. Chongqing relocated 137 factories from the city centre between 2004 and last year. The sites were all redeveloped with commercial or residential buildings.
The Jiangsu provincial government relocated more than 3,000 factories over the last three years to western provinces such as Shaanxi . Most of the vacated sites remain untreated.Stephen Chen
South China Morning Post
- China’s dirty secret (todayonline.com)
- The clean-up begins on China’s dirty secret – soil pollution (guardian.co.uk)
- China wants more clean energy & eco-cities (chinadailymail.com)
- China must act urgently to curb city emissions: World Bank (chinadailymail.com)