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An interview with MEP official on soil pollution action plan
Source: Translated by Environmental Development Center2016-08-12
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The State Council printed and distributed the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution (hereinafter referred to as the Action Plan) on May 31st. providing comprehensive and strategic arrangements for the prevention and control of soil pollution in China for a period of time to come. A reporter with CENEWS interviewed an official with MEP to get a general and in-depth idea of the backgrounds, the significance and the overview of the Action Plan.

1. What are the backgrounds of the Action Plan?
For years, local areas and State departments have enthusiastically adopted measures to make explorations and engage in practices in combating soil pollution and generated certain results. However, as the economic development pattern is extensive, the industrial structure and layout are irrational, and the total load of pollutants is relatively high in China, soil as the ultimate recipient of the majority of pollutants, its environmental quality is significantly affected. Currently, the soil environment as a whole is in a worrying condition in China, and some areas suffer serious soil pollution, which has become one of the distinctively short planks in completing the building of a moderately prosperous society in China. The CPC Central Committee and the State Council have paid high attention to this, and General Secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have given important instructions on multiple occasions, requiring making substantial efforts to tighten soil pollution control. The decision to develop and implement the Action Plan is a decisive move of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council to develop ecological civilization and declare war on pollution, and a major and strategic plan for systematic pollution control, which will play an active role in ensuring the improvement of ecological and environmental quality and the safety and stability of natural ecosystems.

2. What characteristics does the soil pollution exhibit, in comparison with water and air pollution?
First, soil pollution is concealed and hysteretic. Air and water pollution is generally more visible and can be perceived through our senses, whereas soil pollution can only be determined through the analysis of soil samples, the testing of farm crops, and even the study on health impact on people and livestock. It is normally a longer process from the generation of soil pollution to the identification of its harm.

Second, soil pollution is cumulative. It is more difficult for pollutants to move, diffuse, and dilute in soils than in air and water. So, pollutants easily cumulate in soils.

Third, soil pollution is uneven. The soil properties vary significantly, and pollutants move slowly in soils, which leads to uneven distribution of them in soils and great geographical variance.

Fourth, soil pollution is irreversible. Heavy metals are not easily degradable; as a result, the soil pollution caused by them is almost an irreversible process. Besides, it takes a fairly long time for a lot of organic pollutants to degrade in soils.

Fifth, soil pollution control is a tough mission. Once polluted, the polluted soil is almost impossible to be remediated by only blocking the pollution source. In general, the control of soil pollution is expensive, prolonged, and difficult.

3. What do the main soil pollutants include?
Soil pollutants are diversified and from multiple sources. Generally they fall into two kinds, inorganic pollutants and organic pollutants. The majority of the inorganic pollutants are heavy metal pollutants, such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, copper, zinc, and nickel, and in some areas there are also manganese, cobalt, selenium, vanadium, antimony, thallium, and molybdenum. Organic pollutants are plural and include such volatile organic pollutants as benzene, methylbenzene, dimethylbenzene, ethylbenzene, and trichloroethylene, and such semi-volatile organic pollutants as PAHs, PCBs, and organic pesticides.

4. What effect does soil pollution have on the groundwater?
Groundwater pollution is a phenomenon of deteriorated groundwater quality as a result of human activities. Soil pollution is a major source of pollution to shallow groundwater, as certain pollutants in soils can easily get into groundwater because of eluviation and seepage, and day by day, lead to deteriorating quality of shallow groundwater and ultimately, to its pollution.

5. What are the main causes of soil pollution in China?
The soil pollution in China is a chronic and cumulative process in the course of economic and social development, and its main causes are as below:

a. The waste gas, water, and residues discharged from the production and operation activities of industrial and mining enterprises are the main causes of soil pollution in their vicinities. The stockpiling of tailings, hazardous wastes, and other solid wastes also pollutes the nearby soils. Moreover, the vehicle exhausts lead to lead, zinc, and other heavy metal contamination, and PCBs pollution to soils along the trunk traffic routes.

b. Agricultural activities are a major source of pollution to farmlands. Sewage irrigation, the irrational use of fertilizers, pesticides, agro-films and other agricultural inputs, as well as livestock and poultry breeding cause pollution to the farmlands.

c. The random discarding of municipal solid wastes, waste electronic appliances, used batteries, and scrapped light tubes, as well as the discharge of municipal wastewater contribute to soil pollution.

d. High natural background value is one of the causes of excessive heavy metal contaminants in soils of certain regions and watersheds.

6. What have been done in combating soil pollution in China?
China started to address soil pollution later than developed countries and regions. Generally speaking, the groundwork is still weak and a soil pollution control system is yet to be developed. From the 1980s to the 1990s, Chinese scientists started to pay attention to the soil conditions in mines and sewage irrigated lands and to the pollution caused by the massive use of 666 and DDT to farmlands. During the sixth FYP period from 1981 to 1985 and the seventh one from 1986 to 1990, the national S&T programs supported the researches on the environmental background value of agricultural soils and of soils nationwide, as well as soil environment capacity, accumulated invaluable data on the environmental background value of soils in China, and building on this, developed and released the Environmental Quality Standard for Soils (GB 15618-1995) in 1995, the first of its kind in China.

China has for years confronted with increasingly pressing soil environment problems, which have raised widespread public concern. Following the decisions and plans of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council, relevant State departments and local areas have enthusiastically made explorations and generated certain results as below in prevention and control of soil pollution. First, we organized a nationwide general survey on soil pollution conditions and understood the features and overall situations of soil pollution in China. Second, we introduced a raft of policy documents on combating soil pollution and established sound policies, laws and regulations on soil environment protection. Third, we amended the soil environment quality standards, and ameliorated the standards on protecting the soil environment. Fourth, we developed and implemented a comprehensive plan for prevention and control of contamination by heavy metals, and initiated pilot projects on decontamination and remediation of contaminated soils. Fifth, we prepared the action plan for prevention and control of soil pollution and facilitated such control in full scale.

7. What were taken into considerations while preparing the Action Plan?
First, we adhered to the principle of being problem-oriented and observing the bottom lines. Soil pollution is more concealed, and its control effort started later with a poorer groundwork than air and water pollution. Therefore, we put forward requirements for priority respects such as to launch a general survey to figure out the basic situation of soil pollution, and advance legislations and improve standards, with well-defined responsibilities and tightened regulation. In the meantime, we required to resolutely observe a bottom line of soil environment quality that protects the quality of farm produce and the safety of living environment from soil pollution.

Second, we insisted on highlighting priorities and setting limited targets. International and national practices indicated that the soil solutions need long-term and arduous endeavors. The Action Plan, targeting at the pressing soil environmental problems that harm the public health, based on the basic national circumstances at the preliminary stage of socialism, and from the perspective of the overall picture of economic and social development, gives priority to the farmlands out of the agricultural lands and the contaminated plots out of the construction lands, defines the key pollutants, industries, and regions under regulation, strictly controls pollution increment, and introduces tougher regulatory measures for heavily contaminated farmlands by prohibiting the plantation of edible farm produce on such farmlands; other crops may be planted. For contaminated lands, the Action Plan distinguishes them by land use, does not simply prohibit their uses, but establishes a no-list for development and utilization activities based on the level of contamination. In the meantime, it sets limited targets and indicators around the major tasks, so as to protect the environment in the development course and seek development amidst environmental protection effort.

Third, we insisted on exercising category-specific regulation and adopting comprehensive policies. In order to improve the pertinence and effectiveness of the policy measures, the Action Plan classifies the agricultural lands into three categories based on the level of contamination and adopts different measures, i.e., giving priority protection, safe use, and strict regulation. For construction lands, the Action Plan specifies management measures by land use and sets tough standards for access to lands. It also puts forward pertinent regulatory requirements for unutilized lands, covering all of the land categories. In terms of concrete measures, it specifies pertinent measures for uncontaminated lands and contaminated lands respectively, which is, to protect, and to regulate and remediate. On the one hand, it strictly controls pollution increment, on the other hand, it regulates the pollution stock, achieving closed-cycle management and leaving no blind side.

8. How will the Action Plan be a catalytic to the soil pollution control in China?
The implementation of the Action Plan will consolidate China’s groundwork in soil pollution control and uplift the country’s comprehensive ability to combat soil pollution.

First, we will launch a detailed survey on soil pollution conditions, figure out the area and the distribution of contaminated agricultural lands and their effects on the quality of farm produce, the distribution of contaminated plots used by firms in key industries and their environmental risks, and the fact sheet of soil pollution in China.

Second, we will amend relevant laws and regulations, departmental rules, and standards on combating soil pollution, and establish a sound system of legislations and standards for soil pollution control.

Third, we will launch pilot and model projects on decontamination and remediation of contaminated soils, explore a pattern for comprehensive prevention and control of soil pollution regarding preventing soil pollution at the source, risk management, decontamination and remediation, and regulatory capacity building, and establish a technical system for combating soil pollution in China.

Fourth, we will set standards for the management of the organizations and individuals engaged in decontamination and remediation of soil pollution, identify the main parties responsible for such decontamination and remediation and introduce a lifelong accountability system for this, and give full play to the role of the market, so as to advance the development of the soil decontamination and remediation industry.

Fifth, we will well define the responsibilities of all stakeholders concerned, step up information sharing, and education and publicity, in an effort to shape a soil pollution control system which is under the leadership of the government with industry assuming responsibilities, participated by the public, and supervised by the society.

9. Why a detailed survey is necessary? And how do we organize it?
To get a general and accurate understanding of the soil pollution conditions is the basis for preventing and controlling soil pollution and its regulation. Between 2005 and 2013, MEP had worked with Ministry of Land Resources (MLR) and launched the first national general survey on soil pollution conditions, which covered an area around 6.3 mil. km2. The MLR has organized geochemical surveys on multiple target areas since the year 1999, and had surveyed 1.507 mil. km2 by 2014, including 1.386 bn. mu farmlands which accounted for 68% of the total acreage of farmlands in China. In 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture initiated a survey to figure out the contamination of farm produce production bases by heavy metals, and the target area totaled 1.623 bn. mu.

Generally speaking, the already concluded survey on soil environment figured out on a preliminary basis the basic characteristics and layout of nationwide soil pollution, as well as the main soil pollutants. However, as the survey sat across a wide span of time, the surveying methods varied, and the survey was not specific enough to meet the requirements for regulation of soil pollution risks and decontamination and remediation of contaminated soils, it is pressing to, building on the general survey, be more specific and figure out the background data on soil pollution and acquire plot-specific pollution data. We will, through a detailed survey on soil pollution conditions, figure out the soil pollution conditions of agricultural lands, get a clear picture of the distribution of contaminated farmland plots, assess the effects of soil pollution on the quality of farm produce and the public health, find out the causes of such pollution, and understand the status of soil pollution by firms in key industries. Also, we will acquire authoritative, unified, and high-precision data from the soil environment survey, establish an IT-based national soil environment management platform which is category-specific, tiered, and region-specific and based on mega-data application, in an effort to meet the data requirements of the environmental protection, land resources, agricultural and health sectors, and offer scientific basis for the overall implementation of the Action Plan. For the time being, relevant State departments are working on a general plan for the detailed survey and making relevant preparations.

10. The detailed survey on agricultural lands is set to be concluded by 2018 and that of the land uses by firms in key sectors by 2020, what are the considerations for such timetable?
Estimated by the workload required of the detailed survey, we are planning to conclude the part for agricultural lands in around two years, and the part for firms in key sectors in about four years.

11. What monitoring programs and surveys has China already launched on soils? Are there any industrial monitoring network on soils and what are they? How do we integrate the soil environment quality monitoring sites?
So far, apart from the environmental protection department, other soil monitoring and survey departments include the agricultural and land resources departments. The environmental protection department monitors the soil conditions of agricultural lands and contaminated plots, the agricultural department the soil fertility, and the land resources department the determination of mineral elements and other inorganic indicators.

Likewise, the industrial monitoring networks related to soils involve mainly agricultural and land resources departments, in addition to environmental protection department. The agricultural department has set up 107 national monitoring sites in order to monitor the soil fertility of farmlands, and is planning to designate another 152,000 sites under national monitoring program to monitor the safety of production bases in the farms in the vicinity of industrial and mining enterprises, sewage irrigated areas, and suburbs of large-and medium-sized cities, in an effort to address pollution to the production bases of farm produce and their surrounding areas. Moreover, the land resources department has launched geochemical surveys on plural target areas but has not established a regular monitoring network.

Most of the monitoring programs and surveys already launched by the environmental, agricultural, and land resources departments were specific programs with overlapping indicators. But the monitoring and surveys varied in terms of the standards that observed, the monitoring/survey sites, and the monitoring/survey frequencies, so they need to be gradually integrated to meet the requirements of the governments at all levels and relevant State departments.

12. How do we develop the soil environment quality monitoring network?
The Ministry is in the progress of developing a soil environment quality monitoring network, and by December 2015, had set up 31,367 sites under national monitoring program all over the country, including 22,816 general sites and 8,551 risk sites, covering 90 percent of the counties (cities, districts) nationwide. The Ministry is planning to set up additional 7,000 risk sites in 2016.

13. Why is it necessary to enact a specific law on prevention and control of soil pollution?
China hasn’t enacted any specific law or regulation on prevention and control of soil pollution. The ongoing regulations for this purpose are specified by laws and regulations on environmental pollution control, natural resources conservation, and agriculture, for example, the Environment Protection Law, Law on Prevention and Control of Pollution by Solid Wastes, Agriculture Law, Grassland Law, Land Management Law, and Law on Farm Produce Quality Safety. These regulations are neither systematic nor pertinent, so a specific law on soil pollution control is in dire need to meet the requirements for soil pollution control.

14. The Action Plan proposes to cooperate with the drafting of the Law on Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution, where are we with it now? And what progress has been made in developing local regulations in this regard?
In 2013, the Standing Committee of the 12th NPC put the soil pollution control law on the Item 1 of the legislative agenda. As entrusted by Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee (EPRCC) of the NPC, MEP, together with NDRC, MOST, MIIT, MLR, MHURD, MOA, and NHFPC, completed a draft proposal of the soil pollution control law, which was submitted to the EPRCC in December 2014. To facilitate the legislative process, MEP has collaborated with EPRCC over the past two years to launch in-depth investigations, organized multiple thematic workshops and seminars, held thematic lectures, and modified the draft law for over 10 rounds. In the drafting process, Vice Chairmen Chen Changzhi and Shen Yueyue headed separate teams to go to Shandong, Liaoning, Hunan, Henan, Guangdong, and Fujian to make investigations. According to the plan of EPRCC, the draft law will go through two readings within 2016 and be submitted to the Standing Committee of the NPC in 2017 to complete the deliberations.

In December 2015, Fujian Province released the Measures on the Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution in Fujian Province. In February 2016, Hubei Province promulgated Regulations on the Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution in Hubei Province. Hunan, Henan, Guangdong, and Jilin are in the progress of developing local regulations to combat soil pollution.

15. What are the ongoing soil environment protection standards in China? Do we need to set more standards, and what are they?
There are 48 ongoing standards on soil environment protection, which fall into three categories, a. soil environment quality (evaluation) standards, including one soil environment quality standard, three soil environment evaluation standards for special land uses, four technical guidelines for soil environmental protection of construction lands; b. soil environment monitoring specifications, including one technical specification for soil environment monitoring and 37 soil pollutant monitoring methods; c. basic soil environment standards, including two pieces of terminology.

The plan for the preparation and amendment of soil standards is as below: a. to prepare and amend the soil environment quality standards for agricultural lands and construction lands, in order to replace the ongoing soil environment quality standards; b. to prepare and amend the technical specifications for soil environment monitoring, surveys and evaluation, risk control, decontamination and remediation, as well as technical guidelines for environmental impact assessment; c. to improve soil pollution control standards, amend standards for the limits of toxic and hazardous substances in fertilizers, feedstuff, and irrigation water, and discharge standards of agro-sludge, prepare standards for degradable agro-films, and amend the standards for packaging of the agro-films and pesticides; d. to improve the methods for analysis and testing of soil pollutants; e. to prepare a batch of soil environment reference materials.

16. Why are we amending the soil environment quality standard and where are we with it?
The ongoing Soil Environment Quality Standard (GB 15618-1995) (hereinafter referred to as the ongoing standard) was promulgated on July 13, 1995 and enforced as of July 1, 1996. It has played an important and fundamental role in the soil environment protection and management in China but is no longer adapted to the practical needs of soil environmental protection in the current stage due to the following problems, a. small scope of application. The ongoing standard applies only to evaluating the soil environment quality of farmlands, vegetable gardens, tea gardens, orchards, pastures, woodlands, and nature reserves, without evaluation indicators for evaluating the soil environment quality of such construction land uses as businesses and services, industrial, mining and warehouse, housing, public management and public services. b. indicators for few items. The ongoing standard specifies only eight indicators regarding heavy metals and two indicators regarding pesticides 666 and DDT, however, with increasingly complex situations of soil pollution in recent years, there are a lot of pollutants that need to be evaluated for the purpose of environment management of soils in contaminated plots by industrial pollution. c. The implementation of the standard is not satisfactory. The GradeⅠsoil environment standard is an “one-for-all” standard set out based on the data from the soil environment background survey launched in the seventh FYP period from 1986 to 1990 and cannot reflect the area-specific variance. Also, there are controversies over the limits set for certain indicators in the Grade Ⅱ and Grade Ⅲ standards, some are too strict (e.g., cadmium) and some are too loose (e.g., lead), which leads to significant difference in the soil environment quality evaluation results and farm produce quality evaluation results in some areas.

In light of the above said problems with the ongoing standard, MEP started to amend it in 2006, and convened over 20 thematic meetings and workshops to study over and over and straighten out the structure, role, and outline of the soil environment standard. So far, the exposure draft of the amendment to the ongoing standard has been released for three rounds and shall be submitted for approval after further improvements based on the deliberations of the Ministry’s expert panel for review of standards and the thematic meeting of the ministers.

17. Why are we amending the ongoing agro-film standard? How many agro-films are discarded each year?
The ongoing national standard specifies that the thickness of the agro-films shall be 0.008±0.003mm. Even a qualified piece of agro-film is so fragile that it makes it very hard and costly to recover it after being discarded. So, we need to amend the ongoing standard to raise the minimum thickness for the sake of recovery and reuse. Surveys and studies showed the discarded agro-films amounted to over one mil. t in 2013.

18. What are the considerations about major regulated industries?
The first national general survey on pollution sources and the national survey on soil pollution conditions screened out the non-ferrous metal mineral processing, non-ferrous metal smelting, oil extraction, oil processing, chemical industry, coking, electroplating, and leather making industries as the major targets of regulation, considering the fact that the pollutants from these industries are the major pollutants under regulation and pose a serious threat to the soil environment and public health.

19. Why is it necessary to classify the agricultural lands by soil environment quality? How is it different from the grading of them?
To raise the soil management pertinence and effectiveness, the Action Plan exercises category-specific management of agricultural lands based on the level of contamination, and adopts accordingly such different measures as giving priority protection, safe use, and strict regulation, to minimize the risk of nonattainment farm produce. The grading of agricultural lands by the agricultural and land resources departments is based on such main factors as geographical location, hydrothermal condition, and economic value, and basically reflects the variance in land productivity.

20. What part does the industry play in controlling soil pollution?
The industry is responsible for strengthening internal management, incorporating soil pollution control into the environmental risk control system, building and operating pollution control facilities strictly in accordance with laws and regulations, assuring the steady and standard-attaining discharge of main pollutants, and monitoring the soil environment of the land uses by the industry; and in case of soil pollution, taking the legal liability for damage evaluation, decontamination and remediation.

21. What specific measures does agronomic regulation entail?
In the context of soil pollution control, agronomic regulation means regulating the bioavailability of contaminants in farmland soils with agronomic measures, reducing the migration of contaminants from soil to crops especially their edible parts, so as assure the safe production of farm produce and realize the safe use of contaminated farmlands. The main agronomic measures include planting crops with low-level accumulation of heavy metals, regulating the physical and chemical properties of soils, managing soil moisture in a science-based approach, and applying functional fertilizers.

22. Why do we delineate zones prohibited from the production of farm produce?
The Article 15 of Farm Produce Quality Safety Law specifies that the competent agricultural department of the local people’s government at or above county level shall, as per the requirements for safeguarding safety of farm produce, and considering the properties of the variety of farm produce and the level of toxic and hazardous substances in the air, soil, and waters of the production area, propose a list of areas prohibited from the production of farm produce if they are deemed as not suitable for such production, and submit the list to the people’s government at the same level for approval and announcement.

23. What is risk control?
As for agricultural lands, risk control means taking such measures as agronomic regulation, alternative planting, cropping structure adjustment, returning farmlands to forests and grasslands, and delineating areas prohibited from the production of specific farm produces, to safeguard the safe use of farmlands and ensure the safety of farm produce especially grain.

As for construction lands, risk control means marking and labeling contaminated plots, and adopting isolation and blocking measures to prevent the pollution from further expansion; delineating control areas and restricting the access to prevent disturbance on soils; and taking land use control measures to avoid risks from random development activities.

24. What are the main soil pollution risks, and what control measures are to be taken in the next step?
The main soil pollution risks are as below: a. Contamination to farmlands undermines the quality of farm produce. Soil pollution affects the growth of farm crops and results in reduced outputs. Farm crops may absorb and accumulate certain pollutants which undermine the quality of farm produce and lead to economic losses to agricultural production. The long-term consumption of farm produce that contain excessive pollutants may cause serious harm to the public health. b. Soil pollution poses danger to the living environment. The soil contamination in the residential, commercial and industrial land uses may harm public health through oral, respirational, and dermal exposure. The contaminated plots, if developed without remediation, will produce chronic harm to relevant populations. c. Soil pollution threatens ecological security. Soil pollution has effects on the growth and reproduction of flora, fauna (e.g., earthworms), and microorganisms (e.g., Rhizobia), threatens the normal ecological processes and ecosystem functions of soils, is not conductive to the transformation of soil nutrients and fertility maintenance, and affects the normal functions of soils. The pollutants in soils may transform and migrate to surface water, groundwater, atmospheric environment, have effects on other media in the environment, and may pollute the drinking water sources.

The main control measures to be taken in the next step are as below: 1. We will introduce category-specific management of agricultural lands and safeguard the environmental safety of agricultural production. For slightly and moderately contaminated soils, we will put in place a plan for safe use of contaminated farmlands, and take such measures as agronomic regulation and alternative planting to reduce the nonattainment risks of farm produce. For highly polluted soils, we will strictly control the land uses, delineate by law the areas prohibited from production of specific farm produce, strictly forbid the farming of edible farm produce on them. Also, we will prepare and implement the plans for the plantation restructuring of highly contaminated farmlands or plans for returning farmlands to forests and grasslands. 2. We will introduce access control of construction lands and take precautions against the risks to the living environment. We will make the environmental management requirements of soils on construction lands part of the requirements for urban planning, land supply management, and land development and use management. We will ask the land users to investigate and evaluate the soil environment conditions of the land uses by non-ferrous metal smelting, petrochemical, petroleum processing, chemical, coking, electroplating, and leather-making industries before taking back the land use rights, and such land uses about to be changed into public utilities such as residential quarters, commercial institutions, schools, medical care institutions and nursing homes. For the above land uses already reclaimed, the people’s government at the seat of the land use shall launch the said surveys and evaluation. An inventory of contaminated plots and a blacklist of their development and utilization activities will be prepared building on the survey and evaluation results, in order to define the land uses rationally.

25. What is soil pollution risk evaluation?
Soil pollution risk evaluation means reflecting by probability the possibility of certain harms resulted from soil pollution. Soil pollution risks are generally classified into health risks and ecological risks. Health risks refer to the possibility of injury, disease or death from the exposure to contaminated environment. Ecological risks refer to the probability or possibility of damages to certain elements in the ecosystem or to the ecosystem per se by soil pollutants.

26. Why are we taking such measures as adjusting the cropping structure or returning the farmlands to forests and grass when it comes to heavily contaminated farmlands, instead of decontamination and remediation?
The decontamination and remediation of heavily contaminated farmlands is too costly and chronic and may cause serious damage to the soil functions, in light of the current economic strength and technological level. Considering the basic national circumstance that China has limited farmland resources, taking such measures as adjusting cropping structure and returning farmlands to grasslands on highly contaminated farmlands can on the one hand, make full use of the land resources, and on the other hand, eliminate the risk of producing nonattainment grain.

27. How do we take precautions against the risks from the development and utilization of contaminated plots while drafting urban- rural development plans?
Urban-rural planning is the basis for urban-rural development and for the implementation of planning-based management. It helps relevant departments to take precautions against the risks from the development and utilization of contaminated plots at two stages: a. in preparation of such statutory plans as urban master plan, and regulatory specific plans, efforts will be made to reasonably arrange the layout of industrial land uses, especially for three kinds of industrial land uses that seriously disturb and pose pollution and safety hazards to living environment and public space, safe protection distance will be reserved in accordance with relevant standards; b. in the updating of old towns, efforts will be made to tighten the land management after the relocation and upgrading of industrial enterprises, in particular, for the land uses by non-ferrous metal smelting, petroleum processing, chemical, coking, electroplating, and leather-making industries about to be taken back, and such land uses about to be changed into public utilities such as residential quarters, commercial institutions, schools, medical care institutions and nursing homes, the land users need to take charge of the surveys on and evaluation of soil environment conditions. Only the plots whose evaluation results meet the soil environment quality standard of the planned land uses, can the land use protocols be initiated.

28. How do we define the responsibility for decontamination and remediation of contaminated plots?
The Action Plan makes it clear that the definition of the liability for decontamination and remediation of contaminated plots shall follow the principle of “he who pollutes treats pollution”, so the organization or individual that causes the soil pollution shall be held liable. In case of a change of the liable party, the organization or individual that inherits the creditor’s rights or the debts shall be held liable. In case of a transfer of the land use right, the transferee or a mutually agreed party shall be held liable. In case of the loss of the liable party and undefined liable party, the county-level people’s government at the seat of the pollution shall be held liable.

29. Are there any response measures in the Action Plan that target the regulation over the projects on the development, utilization, decontamination, and remediation of contaminated plots, and what are they?

The Action Plan specifies the requirements for the regulation over the development, utilization, decontamination, and remediation of contaminated plots. In respect of development and utilization of such plots, the Action Plan imposes rigorous access management of construction land uses by, first, establishing a system of survey and evaluation prior to the said development and utilization; second, introducing use-specific management measures, so that the land use protocols can be activated only for the plots that meet the soil environment quality requirements of the planned land uses, and for lands not being developed or utilized in the near future, a control area will be delineated and risk control measures will be taken; third, asking the urban-rural planning, land resources, and environmental protection departments to shoulder the regulatory responsibilities and make the soil environment management requirements part of the urban planning and land supply management requirements.

In respect of the decontamination and remediation of contaminated plots, first, the decontamination and remediation projects will be carried out in an in-situ principle, and necessary measures will be taken to prevent secondary pollution; second, the fact sheets of such projects, and the information on their environmental impact and precautionary measures taken will be made public to be monitored by the public; third, a third-party agency will be contracted to evaluate the decontamination and remediation effects; fourth, a system will be introduced to hold liable persons account for the decontamination and remediation of contaminated lands for a lifetime.

30. If contaminated, are there any ways to treat the pollution, and what are they?
The contaminated soils may be remediated to reduce their risks or hazards and restore their functions, however, this generally takes a long time and is very costly. Soil remediation means the process to transport, absorb, degrade, or transform the pollutants in soils by physical, chemical, or biological measures, so that the pollutants may be reduced to acceptable levels, or the process to convert toxic and hazardous pollutants into non-hazardous substances, through normally three methods, that is, the biological remediation, physical remediation, or chemical remediation methods. As soil pollution is complex, multiple technologies may be needed.

Biological remediation technology dates back to the 1980s, and the rudimental principle is to harness the distinctive ability of life forms in decomposing toxic and hazardous substances to remove the soil pollutants. The main technologies include phytoremediation, microbial remediation, and plant-microbial remediation. The upside of biological remediation is it neither damages the organic substances in soils, nor disturbs the soil structure in a big way, and the cost is low. The downside is it takes a long time and is generally not suitable for remediating highly contaminated soils.

Physical remediation means the technologies to remove or separate pollutants from soils through all sorts of physical processes. The common technologies include replacement with out-soil, thermal desorption, soil vapor extraction (SVE), and mechanical ventilation. The upside is high remediation efficiency and quick effects, and the downside is high cost, etc.

Chemical remediation means the technologies to remove soil pollutants or reduce the bioavailability or toxicity of soil pollutants by adding chemical substances to soils which lead to such chemical reactions of heavy metals and organic substances as oxidation-reduction, chelating, or precipitation. The main technologies include soil solidification/stabilization, soil washing, and oxidation-reduction. The upside is it has high remediation efficiency and fairly quick effects. The downside is it can easily break the soil structure and cause secondary pollution due to addition of chemical agents.

31. How many stages are to be gone through in decontamination and remediation of contaminated plots, and what are they?
The decontamination and remediation of contaminated plots normally goes through the following stages, that is, surveys and evaluation, feasibility study and plan design, the construction of projects, and acceptance check of the projects. The survey and evaluation stage includes the identification of pollutants, determination of the pollution level and scope, the evaluation of pollution risks, and setting of remediation target values. The feasibility study and plan design stage includes the selection of remediation technologies, the determination of parameters for the process, the evaluation of the construction quantity, the feasibility argumentation, the design of construction drawing, and environmental management plans. The construction of projects means organizing the construction activities at the construction sites and the engineering development, in accordance with the design of the plans. The acceptance check of projects means monitoring and evaluating the effects of the remediation projects.

32. How much does the decontamination and remediation cost?
The cost of decontamination and remediation of soil pollution varies significantly with the type of pollutant, the pollution level, and the kind of remediation technology adopted. Generally speaking, the decontamination and remediation of agricultural lands costs from thousands to tens of thousands yuan per mu, and that of contaminated plots ranges from hundreds to thousands yuan per cubic meter.

33. Can you describe the status quo of the soil pollution decontamination and remediation industry?
China started the research and development of soil pollution decontamination and remediation technologies since the 10th FYP period, especially since the beginning of the 12th FYP period, with the support of the special funds established for the prevention and control of heavy metal contamination, China has developed pollutant-specific decontamination and remediation technologies based on the pollution level and the land uses. The count of decontamination and remediation technologies has gone up to 1,000 ones from a dozen, and the employment has reached nearly 10,000 people from around 2,000 ones in 2010. The total projects reached over 300. In general, the soil pollution decontamination and remediation has the basic groundwork to develop as an industry, considering its technological reserves and employment size. With the implementation of the Action Plan, the industrial chain of soil pollution decontamination and remediation will gradually cover such stages as soil environment survey, analysis and testing, risk evaluation, and design and construction of decontamination and remediation projects, and a group of specialized soil remediation firms will be established. We will introduce a lifelong accountability system for decontamination and remediation by setting standards for the management of organizations and individuals engaged in this industry, accelerate the translation and application of the decontamination and remediation results, and promote the development of this industry.

34. How are the six pilot areas for integrated soil pollution management determined, and how do we carry out the piloting efforts?
We’ve decided to establish six pilot areas for integrated soil pollution management in six cities Taizhou Municipality of Zhejiang, Huangshi Municipality of Hubei, Changde Municipality of Hunan, Shaoguan Municipality of Guangdong, Hechi Municipality of Guangxi, and Tongren Municipality of Guizhou, based on the results of the national survey on soil pollution conditions, and considering such factors as the regional representativeness, the type of soil pollution, the current groundwork, and the enthusiasm of local governments. The pilot areas are also specified by the outline of the 13th FYP for national economic and social development.

In 2014, MEP started the preparatory efforts in developing the pilot areas, and organized prefectural cities concerned to draft development plans, which already passed the expert review. In 2015, MEP organized a meeting to initiate the pilot areas, and is now formulating standards for development of pilot areas. For the moment, the prefectural cities concerned are proceeding with the development in accordance with the plans. In the next step, MEP will tighten the evaluation of and inspection on the development progress and urge local areas concerned to complete the development of pilot areas within deadlines.

35. How many local areas have already raised decontamination funds by issuing bonds, and what are they?
Hunan Province has issued bonds that totaled 6.7 bn. yuan in face value since June 2013 for decontamination of heavy metals in Xiangjiang River basin. Also, the Agricultural Bank of China issued green bonds in London Securities Exchange in 2015, totaling one bn. yuan, used for clean energy, bioelectrogenesis, and municipal solid waste and wastewater treatment.

36. What is the plan for the coordination mechanism for national soil pollution control?
A coordination mechanism for national soil pollution control will be established to make overall plans and coordinate the national efforts in soil pollution control and deliberate solutions to major problems on a regular basis. The preliminary plan is to set up an inter-departmental coordination group for soil pollution control, a group consisting of members with MEP, NDRC, MOST, MIIT, MOF, MLR, MHURD, MWR, MOA, AQSIQ, SFA, and State Council Office of Legislative Affairs.



1. What is soil?
Soil is a mixture of minerals, organic matter, water, air, and organisms that together support plants on the surface of the Earth. It is the tectorium.

2. What functions does the soil support?
The main functions of soils are as below: providing the venue and necessary nutrients for growth of plants; providing the survival space of organisms and microorganisms, and purifying the environment; providing the groundwork and engineering materials for buildings.

3. What is soil pollution?
Soil pollution means a phenomenon in which the pollutants from human activities enter the soils and accumulate to such an extent that they lead to soil degradation and cause harm to the ecological environment and public health.

4. What is a contaminated plot?
A contaminated plot is a piece of land polluted by the soil or groundwater due to the production, operation, use,, and storage of hazardous chemicals or other toxic and hazardous substances, the stockpiling or disposal and treatment of municipal solid wastes, hazardous wastes, or other toxic wastes.

5. What is the soil environment background value?
Soil environment background value is the content of a certain chemical element or compound in soil environment under the condition of zero or minimum impact from human activities.

6. What is the soil environment benchmark?
Soil environment benchmark is the maximum value or critical content for a certain physical or chemical element in soils not to have adverse or hazardous effects on the organisms, crops, health, or functions of soils. The benchmarks can be classified into those for the protection of the safety of farm produce, the protection of public health, and the protection of ecological recipients and groundwater. 

7. How are the land uses classified in China?
The land uses in China can be divided into agricultural lands, construction lands, and unutilized lands, in accordance with Soil Management Law and Current Land Use Classification. Specifically, the agricultural lands include farmlands, gardens, woodlands, and grasslands. The construction lands include business and service land uses, industrial and mineral storage lands, residential lands, public management and service lands, special purpose lands, and traffic and transportation lands. The unutilized lands include shoals, saline-alkali soil, marshes, sandy lands, and barren lands. 

8. What is alterative cropping?
Alternative cropping is a measure taken to substitute crops with high safety risks by crops with low safety risks, in order to safeguard the safe production of farm produce, for example, replacing crops with low-accumulation of heavy metals with crops with high-accumulation of heavy metals.

9. What is adjustment of cropping structure?
Adjustment of cropping structure means adjusting edible crops into non-edible crops or other plants, considering the properties of farm produce and the soil pollution conditions.

10. What is a heavy metal low-accumulation crop?
A heavy metal low-accumulation crop is a kind or variety of crop of which the edible or usable parts absorb or accumulate low level of heavy metals.

11. What is a soil remediation plant?
A soil remediation plant is a special plant which removes, degrades, transforms, or fixates the pollutants in soils, normally a hyper-accumulator that has strong ability of accumulating a certain heavy metal, for example, Scutellaria sessilifolia is a hyper-accumulator of arsenic, and Sedum alfredii is one of cadmium.

12. What day is the World Earth Day? What about the World Environment Day, World Soil Day, World Food Day, and National Land Day?
The World Earth Day is on April 22, the World Environment Day is on June 5, the World Soil Day falls on December 5, the World Food Day is on October 16, and the National Land Day is June 25.