On the morning of Jun. 21, MEP held the monthly regular press conference to introduce the progress made in soil environment management since the year 2016. Qiu Qiwen, the Ministry’s Director General of the Department of Soil Environment Management, and Lin Yusuo, Director of the Research Center for Soil Pollution Prevention and Control of Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, attended the press conference, released relevant information, and took questions from the news presses. Liu Youbin, Counsel with the Department of Communications and Education, moderated the press conference.
Moderator: My friends at the news circle, welcome to MEP regular press conference in June.
Soil as the material basis that sustains the economic and social development, its environmental quality is vital to the human health and the building of a beautiful country. Therefore, to control soil pollution is an integral part of our efforts in the building of ecological civilization and the protection of the environment. In May 2016, the State Council printed out the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution (hereinafter referred to as the Action Plan), which makes plans for the soil pollution control for now and for a period of time to come and raised the attention of all walks of life.
At today’s press conference, we have Director General Qiu Qiwen and Director Lin Yusuo with us to share our progress in the implementation of the action plan for the prevention and control of soil pollution and take questions of your concern.
Now I give floor to Director General Qiu.
Qiu: Good morning! Thank you for your long-held concern and support for our environment. The quality of the soil environment is a matter of sustained economic and social development and the people’s health. To control soil pollution is an integral part of our efforts to promote the building of an ecological civilization and safeguard the ecological security. The CPC Central Committee and the State Council have attached great importance to the control of soil pollution. On May 28 last year, the State Council printed out the Action Plan, which is a programme of action for preventing and controlling soil pollution for now and for a period of time to come. We have accomplished the following tasks over the past year.
First, we established a working mechanism. The national inter-departmental coordination group for prevention and control of soil pollution was set up, with MEP as the leading agency.
Second, we launched in full scale the national detailed census on soil pollution. We worked with MOF, MLR, MOA, and NHFPC and mapped out a master plan for the census.
Third, we helped improve the legislations and standards. We collaborated with the NPC on the enactment of the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law, and promulgated the Measures on the Environmental Management of the Soils on Contaminated Plots (on trial), which shall enter into force on July 1. We worked with MOA on the formulation of the Measures on the Environmental Management of the Soils on Agricultural Lands (on trial), which is soon to be promulgated. We either updated or formulated the standards concerning the soil environment of agricultural lands and construction lands, which will be promulgated by the end of the year.
Fourth, we piloted the control of soil pollution. We instructed local areas to initiate a new batch of pilot projects on the application of soil pollution remediation and restoration technologies, building on the experience from the first 14 pilot projects. We also instructed on the formulation of six local plans on developing priority areas for integrated soil pollution control.
Fifth, we set up a soil environment monitoring network. We formulated the master plan for monitoring soil environment and the plan for designating monitoring sites under national monitoring program. Around 20,000 sites have been designated, which cover 99 percent of the counties, 98 percent of the soil types, and 99 percent of the main grain production areas in China and constitute the preliminary national soil environment monitoring network.
Sixth, we strengthened the performance evaluation for the targets set in the Action Plan.
In the next step, we will focus on the following major tasks. First, we will fully unfold the detailed census on the soil pollution control. Second, we will continue to support the relevant law-making, and quicken the pace to formulate and update relevant standards. Third, we will work faster to establish management and technological framework and highlight the category-specific management of agricultural lands and the access control of construction lands. Fourth, we will make solid efforts to advance the piloting of soil contamination remediation and restoration and the development of priority areas for integrated soil pollution control. Fifth, we will introduce measures on the performance evaluation of the Action Plan and strengthen such evaluation.
The soil is not polluted in one day and there are no immediate solutions. We should embrace a tough battle against soil pollution and be patient. The soil pollution control in China is still at the starting period and we need to lay the groundwork, highlight the priorities and observe the bottom lines. Also, we are determined to achieve soil pollution control targets right on schedule, with the support of all walks of life.
Moderator: Now the floor is open.
National Business Daily: The news on the internet indicated the Action Plan has created a market potential of over 500 bn. yuan for soil remediation. More and more firms are starting the remediation businesses. What measures will the central government take to promote soil remediation?
Qiu: The Action Plan specifies that the soil pollution control should adhere to the “prevention first, protection priority, and risk control” policy. The main targets of remediation and decontamination should be the contaminated plots proposed to be developed for residential, business, schooling, medical care, and nursing purposes. The idea was developed from decades of international experience in soil remediation and restoration.
As soil remediation is an emerging industry in China, a complete industrial chain needs to be developed with such links as environmental investigation, risk assessment, risk control, remediation and restoration, and assessment of restoration effects. Also, we need to incubate competitive flagship firms and vibrant SMEs to advance the remediation and restoration of soil pollution.
The central government is taking the following steps to strengthen the regulation over this emerging market. First, information disclosure. The Measures on the Environmental Management of Soils in Contaminated Plots (on trial) stipulates that the outline of the investigation report, risk assessment report, risk control plan, decontamination and remediation plan, and assessment report of decontamination and remediation effects shall be released on the internet for public supervision. Second, tougher regulation by credit ratings. We will standardize the management of the entities and individuals engaged in the decontamination and restoration of soil pollution, establish a sound supervision mechanism, and make public the list of entities with low technical and service strength, low level of business management, and poor credit ratings. Third, greater accountability. MEP is racing against time to formulate measures for the lifelong accountability for the decontamination and restoration of soil pollution, and will roll out those measures by the end of the year.
Nanfang Metropolis Daily: Statistics showed there have been growing cases concerning the transboundary dumping of hazardous wastes, with a cross-region and inter-industry tendency. Why is transboundary dumping of hazardous wastes unstoppable? How to curb the dumping of such wastes on foreign soil?
Qiu: The environmental management of hazardous wastes dated back to the 1990s and has been conducted through our efforts in implementing the Basel Convention and by learning the good experience and practices of the EU and the U.S. We owed today’s statutory framework of hazardous wastes to more than two decades’ efforts.
MEP has advanced the environmental management of hazardous wastes from the following aspects in recent years. a. We have improved the hazardous waste environmental management system, by releasing the National Catalogue of Hazardous Wastes, establishing the hazardous waste exemption system, and amending the law on the prevention and control of pollution by solid wastes. b. We have urged local areas to conduct capacity building for disposing of hazardous wastes. So far, 2,034 hazardous waste business permits have been issued by the environmental protection branches across China. The holders of those permits are operating with a combined capacity of 52.63 mil. t/y, up 29.38 mil. t/y from 2010 level. c. We have strengthened the standardized management and assessment of hazardous wastes. We randomly checked more than 8,000 entities that either generate or operate hazardous wastes during the 12th Five-Year Plan period, with the overall qualification rate up 15 percentage points. Fourth, we have enhanced the regulation over compliance. In 2016, we worked with the Ministry of Public Security on cracking down on hazardous waste related environmental offences, canvassed 46,397 hazardous waste operators, filed and investigated 1,539 cases, and transferred 330 cases to the police departments to pursue criminal liabilities.
The rampant illegal movement and disposal of hazardous wastes are mainly attributed to certain rapacious companies that risk releasing or moving hazardous wastes without a permit, due to little compliance awareness and reluctance to fulfill their responsibilities.
The Ministry will strengthen the regulation over hazardous wastes from the following perspectives. First, we will quicken the pace to improve the management framework, amend the law on the prevention and control of pollution by solid wastes and other legislations, and make it clear that the hazardous waste generators shall be held accountable for decontamination of hazardous wastes and lifelong compensations for the environmental damages caused. Second, we will ask the companies to take the main responsibility for hazardous waste management and the government to take the regulatory responsibility, and set up corporate environmental information sharing platform to disclose the incompliant companies. We will hold the Party and government leading officials accountable for lifelong environmental protection. Third, we will tighten enforcement and set up a long-term mechanism for cracking down on hazardous waste related crimes. We will make the administrative enforcement to be more complementary with criminal justice, show zero leniency to hazardous waste related crimes, and work with the police department to severely crack down on relevant environmental offences.
Financial Times: It has come to my understanding that many of the local governments are reluctant to make public their contaminated lands, as the disclosure may let people think twice before purchasing local real estate. May I ask how detailed is the contamination to be disclosed?
Qiu: The world countries are closely concerned with the disclosure of the soil pollution information, China included. We are now organizing a detailed national census on the soil pollution under the Action Plan. The objective is to figure out the area and distribution of contaminated agricultural lands and their impact on the quality of farm produce, and more importantly, the distribution and environmental risks of contaminated plots. The results will be made public after the census is concluded in 2020. As for to what extent the results will be publicized, we will adopt the common practices of the world countries. We’ll keep the information disclosed as much as possible and yet under control.
CRI: The latest announcement of your ministry was about air and water pollution, without mentioning the soil pollution. Can you tell us the area of contaminated lands in China and how is the decontamination going?
Qiu: The bulletin on the national census on soil pollution conditions was released by MEP and MLR in 2014, which suggested that the soil pollution in China was not good. The pollution was serious in certain areas, the soil quality of farmlands was worrying, and the environmental problems of abandoned industrial and mining lands were prominent. 16.1 percent of the monitored sites failed the soil quality standards. Specifically, 11.2 percent were mildly polluted, 2.3 percent lightly polluted, 1.5 percent moderately polluted, and 1.1 percent seriously polluted. It should be noted that as the soil conditions vary greatly with geographical distribution, the above figures measure only the pollution of the monitored sites and do not necessarily represent the percentage of the area of contamination. It is only a macro overview of soil pollution in China. Right now we’re working with relevant State departments on a more detailed census to gather information on the area and distribution of soil pollution.
There was little information on soil environment in the bulletin. That’s because the data on soil environment were acquired from national network for monitoring soil environment quality, which is still under development, and the monitoring is at the preliminary piloting basis. With the further development of the network, we will be able to share information on the soil environment quality in the bulletin soon.
Reuters: Are there any fiscal or policy measures to support the control of soil pollution, and what are they? Can you tell us some success stories about soil pollution decontamination? What are the duration and cost for such decontamination?
Qiu: The Chinese Government highly values the control of soil pollution and sets up a special fund to tackle the pollution. It allocated around 14.6 bn. yuan from last year to the first six months of this year to fund the local soil pollution control work. Moreover, MOST worked out a S&T support plan.
As for the success stories, and the cost and effect, I’d like Director Lin to give you more specialized answers.
Lin: As is known to all, the soil decontamination and remediation is a worldwide difficult issue. We learn from the success stories of other countries which have an earlier start in this area and wrap up our own success stories as well.
Taking the decontamination of agricultural lands for an example, China has very good success stories. The farmlands in China were polluted by pesticide 666 in the 1970s and 1980s, so the Chinese Government prohibited the use of 666 since 1983 to cut off the source of pollution. Then the soil was monitored and improved, considering the laws by which the organic pollutants naturally degrade in soils. The level of 666 residues was monitored once every decade over the past three decades and more and has been back to the safe level. This is one of the success stories about risk control of contaminated farmlands which has been acknowledged by the international community.
Moreover, China has worked over the past two decades on the technologies for the restoration of farmlands polluted by heavy metals, which have become cutting-edge technologies in the international community and successfully helped remediate many large patches of polluted sites in China.
The Paper: My first question is about the national network for monitoring soil pollution, as you just talked about, how do those monitoring sites integrate with the sites already designated by the agricultural and land resources departments? Second question is about the heavy metal pollution in the “Manganese Triangle” sitting across Guizhou, Hunan, and Chongqing. When the central environmental inspection team informed Chongqing on the inspection report in April, it mentioned 18 manganese electroplating companies that did not take anti-leakage measures for their slag dump. It was the same case with such companies in Songtao County of Guizhou in the Manganese Triangle. The water and soil in the downstream of the slag dump was tested with excessive level of manganese and other heavy metals. Therefore, censuses need to be conducted to figure out the soil pollution condition. My question is, targeting what industries has MEP launched a detailed census? What measures will be taken to address the identified polluters and polluted regions?
Qiu: That’s a long question. This round of detailed census focuses on major soil polluting industries such as non-ferrous metal mining and processing, smelting, petrochemical extraction and processing, chemical, pesticide, coking, electroplating, and leather-making industries, which included the manganese electroplating industry. In the Manganese Triangle, the local environmental protection departments already designated the initial monitoring sites and major pollution sources. We controlled the pollution from the manganese electroplating industry in this Triangle which was a major area for such control during the 12th Five-Year Plan period. In the next step, we will work to establish a coordination mechanism for the integrated control of manganese in the Triangle; urge the local governments to step up the management of small and random polluters, and treat the manganese slag dump and other previous pollution; and strengthen the role of electroplating companies as the main players to control manganese pollution, tighten the compliance inspection, and make sure those companies to meet emission standards. In the meantime, we will apply the detailed census data as soon as they are available, and urge local governments to work out plans and take risk control measures on high-risk agricultural lands. We will also come up with relevant pollution and risk control measures on high-risk industrial lands.
As for the integration of the monitoring sites, MEP is taking the lead to map out a general plan for monitoring the soil pollution and designate the monitoring sites. The agricultural and land resource departments will select some basic sites under their national monitoring programs to be part of our soil environment monitoring network, so that the monitoring will be conducted by unified standards under the network, and the data will be collected and released based on the network.
Jiemian News: Director General Qiu, calculating from the census data available, how much does it cost to restore agricultural lands in China? The regulatory documents stipulate that the soil remediation adheres to the “polluter pays principle” and “developer pays” principle, but what if the polluters are reluctant to bear the costs?
Qiu: The decontamination and restoration of agricultural lands is different from that of contaminated plots in that after remediation, the agricultural lands need to maintain their function as agricultural lands, a requirement which makes the restoration technologies to be somewhat restricted. The remediation costs of agricultural lands vary greatly with the type of the pollutant, the level of pollution, and the technology used, ranging from thousands yuan/mu to dozens of thousands yuan/mu, based on the specialist calculations and local cases.
The polluter pays principle says the polluters shall take the main responsibility for decontamination and remediation; in case the main responsible party no longer exists or is uncertain, the local people’s government at the county level shall take such responsibility.
The decontamination and restoration of soil pollution is difficult, expensive, and chronic, and the goals need to be set forth by the usage of soil. For the lands intended for residential purpose or public facilities such as hospitals, campuses, and nursing homes, they can be developed only after meeting soil quality standards, after environmental investigations, risk assessment, and decontamination and restoration. For the lands not intended for development activities for now, risk control measures will be taken, for example, by monitoring the environment of a controlled area and blocking the pollution, if any, from dispersion. In my opinion, the core of soil pollution control is risk control.
The Beijing News: As you just said, the control of soil pollution differs from that of air and water pollution in that the pollution is not controlled by large-scale decontamination or restoration projects, then how do we control the risks of contaminated soils, prevent possible pollution to clean soils, or control the ongoing pollution to soils? About the pollution by pesticide 666, the pollution fell back to a safe level thanks to natural degradation, then how do we treat the contaminated soils? Are they safe for any use? Moreover, the NPC Standing Committee deliberated the draft soil pollution law a while ago, can you tell us the highlights of the draft law? Will the provision that the local people’s government at the county level shall take the main responsibility for the decontamination and remediation of contaminated soils in case the responsible party is uncertain be part of the law? Will there any statutory provision that prohibits the development of risk control areas?
Qiu: Your questions are threefold. I’ll take the first and last ones and leave the second to Director Lin. About risk control, I think the core of soil pollution control is risk control, which is quite different from the control of air and water pollution. There are three elements in a risk of pollution, which is, the pollution source, exposure pathway, and target of protection. We protect the people and crops from soil pollution. In this sense, the purpose of remediation includes but is not limited to cleaning up the source of pollution. We also need to consider cutting off the exposure pathway and mapping out target-specific protection strategies. Once the pathway is blocked, the humans will not be exposed to polluted soils and the risk will be under control.
For the agricultural lands, we may take such measures as agronomic measures, alternative cropping, plantation restructuring, and returning farmlands to forests and grasslands, to achieve the safe use of soil, control risks and ensure safety of farm produce. For the construction lands, we may block or cut off the pollution to control the risks. For example, in a waste dump we visited in Germany, geomembrane was used to prevent rainwater seepage, and groundwater table was lowered to keep groundwater from pollution by wastes. In addition, we need to monitor the groundwater in the vicinity of contaminated plots and take measures against any dispersion of pollution. All in all, risk control means taking different control measures by land uses. The core is to control the risks of soil pollution and realize the safe use of lands rather than expensive and excessive remediation. But remediation is necessary and needs to be satisfactory.
For your questions about soil pollution control law, the NPC Standing Committee attaches great importance to the legislations on the control of soil pollution and put it on the top list of legislative agenda. The draft law will be submitted to the Standing Committee for panel discussions. You may follow the upcoming news briefings of the NPC for more authoritative report.
Lin: I’d like to say more about your questions. As Director General Qiu said, the risk control does not mean we leave the pollution unattended. Rather, it is a scientific process based on the features and the laws of change of the pollution. For example, we took risk control measures on 666 polluted soils. After 666 was prohibited, we continued to grow crops on the polluted soils, based on a full understanding of this pesticide that it pollutes the crops mainly during the uses by spraying on the crops, which was a major pathway of exposure. The ban on the pesticide may keep the grain from being polluted.
About the residues in the soils, 666 is a kind of organic pollutant which is not easy but eventually possible to degrade and disappear. Its effects on the farm crops will be mitigated with lowering level of pollution.
Moreover, the pesticide in soils may change into speciation which helps detoxicate significantly. The agricultural and environmental protection departments monitor the 666 residue in soils once every decade. The previous national census suggested this pesticide neither is a major soil pollutant nor affects the safety of farm produce. In this sense, risk control is the best option based on a scientific understanding and the actual circumstances.
CNS: Can you tell us the latest developments in the detailed census on soil pollution? Has the pollution been mitigated or aggravated compared with the level in 2005 and 2013, and what has caused the soil pollution, the pursuit of high grain yield, more use of chemical preparations, or greater output of chemical fertilizers?
Qiu: To have a full and correct understanding of the soil pollution lays the groundwork for its control and regulation. MEP and MLR conducted the first national census on soil pollution between 2005 and 2013 and had an overview of the soil pollution in China. In the upcoming detailed census, we will build on the data of the first census and figure out the area and distribution of polluted agricultural lands and their effects on the farm produce, gather data on the distribution and environmental risks of contaminated plots in industrial lands of key industries, and collect authoritative, unified, and high-accuracy data on soil environment, in order to set up a national platform for IT-based management of soil environment and provide scientific basis for the full implementation of the action plan on control of soil pollution.
The work is proceeding smoothly thanks to the concerted efforts of all departments involved. We have formulated a master plan for the detailed census, and all of the 31 provinces (autonomous regions and municipalities) have drafted the local implementation plans. We have promulgated one, are about to promulgate four, are amending eight, and have formulated eight technical specifications to guide the upcoming census. We have developed and commissioned the platform and terminals for the IT-based management of the census. We have established a quality control system and selected 37 quality control laboratories and over 200 testing laboratories for the census. Also, we have organized training programs for nearly 1,000 technical backbones and piloted the technical regulations in Xiong’an New Area, Guangdong, Hebei, Hunan, Chongqing, and Guangxi.
The detailed census differs from the first census in the following aspects. First, it is organized by five line ministries including the environmental protection, finance, land resources, agricultural and health departments, based on the census data already available from the environmental protection, land resources, and agricultural departments, to prevent redundancy and improve work efficiency and accuracy. Second, the targets of this census have increased. The first census as a general census covered the gridded sites on a total of 6.3 mil. km2 territory, and this one targets at agricultural lands and industrial lands of key industries as well. Third, there has been an improvement to the methodology. We divided the census units by the source and dispersion pathway of the pollution and designate census sites inside the units to make the sites more representative of the situation. Fourth, the resolution of the grid has been higher. In the first census, the grid is divided with a resolution of 8000m×8000m for farmlands and 32000m×32000m for grasslands. In the upcoming census, the resolution is 500m×500m for agricultural lands and 1000m×1000m for generic lands. Fifth, the census plans, laboratory selection standards, evaluation standards, quality control standards, and census duration are identical all over the country.
China Youth Daily: The census data on the agricultural lands won’t be available until 2018. And yet, there have been recent reports on polluted wheat in a certain province. People are wondering if there will be emergency census in the future.
Qiu: Indeed, there are some news reports on cadmium contaminated wheat, which has been a close concern of the general public. The Henan provincial government has ordered its agricultural department to activate food safety emergency response mechanism. The agricultural department has organized specialists to check the suspected cadmium wheat fields, take samples and have them tested in the farm produce testing centers (Nanjing, Wuhan, and Zhengzhou) under the MOA. The testing results are not yet available. The local government of Xinxiang where wheat was reportedly to have grown on cadmium polluted farmlands monitored the harvesting, transportation, and storage of contaminated wheat, and had them sealed, surveillanced, and guarded. You may come to relevant authorities for the later developments of the event.
About how the local governments find out and take actions against prominent soil environment problems, a principle has been established for this census, asking the local prefectural and county governments to highlight prominent soil problems in the census and take different control measures to ensure the environmental security of agricultural lands.
China Daily: It has come to our attention that Hunan suffered pollution from heavy metals. Can you enlighten us on the latest developments in remediation? Changde as a pilot city for soil pollution control, does it have any replicable practices or experience?
Qiu: The Central Government has attached great importance to the control of pollution from heavy metals, and introduced the 12th Five-Year Plan for Integrated Control of Heavy Metal Pollution. By the end of 2015, the combined release of five major heavy metal contaminants (lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and metalloid arsenic) had dropped roughly one quarter from the 2011 level, indicative of a major progress. What’s more, less than three environmental emergencies related to heavy metals occurred on average each year between 2012 and 2015, a significant decline from a dozen in 2010 and 2011.
The pollution by heavy metals is a cumulative and chronic process, as in the case of Hunan. The solutions to the pollution and the elimination of its negative effects do not come in one day as well. In the next step, the Ministry will continue to tighten the control of heavy metal pollution while implementing the soil pollution action plan, improve the environmental quality of key regions, and address the environmental risks and hazards of public concern.
As for the good experience and practices you talked about, I believe we have the following experience in the integrated control of heavy metal pollution. First, we should well define the responsibilities. We should adhere to the principle of “adopting region-specific policies, controlling pollution increment and treating the old pollution under the leadership of the government with the industry as the main players”. Second, we should aim at the improvement of the environmental quality and mobilize all departments concerned to highlight the control of heavy metal pollution in key regions. Third, we should work hard to advance industrial restructuring, optimize the industrial layout, and upgrade the processes. Fourth, we should establish creative investment and financing mechanisms, and raise funds for the decontamination through multiple channels. All in all, the central government will continue to tighten the control of the pollution by heavy metals in the future.
Science and Technology Daily: The agricultural plantation, excessive level of nitrogen fertilizers in soils, and overuse of pesticides may lead to pesticide residue in the farm produce and affect food safety. Is there any supervision mechanism that traces the pollutant from food to the source? The rural areas monitor neither the soils nor the pesticide residues in the farm produce. Is there any monitoring data available? Will China introduce a system that traces the soil pollution by testing the farm produce that grows on it?
Qiu: As I said in the beginning, the control of soil pollution should adhere to the “prevention first, protection priority, and risk control” policy. We should prioritize the control of soil pollution at the source before in the end. The reason is that it is extremely difficult and expensive to decontaminate the polluted soils. The international experience puts the ratio of the cost for prevention, risk control, and terminal decontamination at 1:10:100, which means whenever it takes one dollar to prevent a possible pollution to the soils, it takes 10 dollars to control the risks and 100 dollars to decontaminate once the soil is polluted. In this sense, we should give priority to preventing the pollution.
The food safety is a close concern of the general public, as you said. The government departments have taken a raft of effective measures to address the food safety issue, and regulate the contaminated grain.
Yicai: It is reported that Wuji County of Hebei witnessed pollution from the dumping of waste liquids. Did MEP send specialized investigators to the scene? What are the latest developments of the investigation?
Qiu: What happened in Wuji is horrible. We’re very sorry to hear the report. The Ministry organized the environmental compliance inspection and soil pollution control departments to urge the local governments to handle the emergency. The local governments took timely response measures. So far, the contamination has been stabilized. We will take samples from the scene, analyze the causes, and take pertinent measures. The investigation is still under way, so we will share the details later.
(This English version is for your reference only.In case any discrepancy exists between the Chinese and English context, the Chinese version shall prevail.)