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Toxic Soil Threatens Urban Areas

06-05 14:41 Caijing
Untreated toxic soil has been quietly threatening people's health and lives without the knowledge of residents or even the government in many cases.

By staff reporters Gao Shengke and Wang Kai

No one wants to live next to a garbage dump. But many Chinese citizens, lacking knowledge of the history of land use in their communities, may actually be living directly above highly-contaminated soil.

So-called “toxic soil” refers to land which was once used for production, storage, and piling up of toxic and hazardous substances, as well as soil and groundwater that poses risks to human health and the local ecology due to contamination after relocation or accidents. Heavy metals, electronic waste, petrochemical organic pollutants, and persistent organic pollutants make up the four major categories of toxic pollutants.

During China’s process of industrial restructuring and urban construction since 2001, many low-grade industrial enterprises that once occupied prime locations in urban areas have relocated to the outskirts of cities or exited secondary industries to establish tertiary industries. The shutdown and relocation of these high-polluting industrial enterprises have exposed large amounts of toxic soil in the areas they once operated. 

Real estate developers often covet former industrial sites in urban areas for their prime locations, and as a result nearly all the plots with toxic soil have been developed. Many of these plots are loosely governed and have been classified for "normal use."

A senior industry expert stated that the total number of contaminated sites nationwide could be in the thousands. Pesticide plant contaminated sites alone occupy a high percentage, but only a handful of these areas have been or are being dealt with.

Previously, pesticide factories' main approach to handling pesticide residues and other harmful chemical residues was discharging and burying the toxic substances on the spot, sometimes only 5-6 meters below the ground. As a result, a large amount of treated toxic soil still contains high pollutant concentrations, oftentimes at levels more than hundreds of times above regulatory standards. Moreover, some pollutants buried over 10 meters underground have seeped into groundwater during removal and relocation, leading to more large-scale pollution.

Cases of acute poisoning caused by hazardous pollutants at construction sites have been exposed several times since 2004. However, untreated toxic soil has also been quietly threatening people's health and lives without the knowledge of residents or even the government in many cases. The extent of the harm these toxic substances do to the human body often takes years or even decades to become apparent. Reports of toxic soil have emerged in a number of cases, but little information has been disclosed, and the debate has been limited to internal discussions among experts and closed-door decision-making.

Facing this new pollution problem, Chinese law lacks both mandatory soil pollution assessment procedures prior to relocation as well as post-incident accountability mechanisms, which often results in authorities dealing with problems “case-by-case” as they arise.

In the context of China's rapid urbanization, the potential risks of toxic soil have greatly risen. It has thus become an urgent task to conduct a thorough investigation on the true state of existing and newly-formed toxic soil, including the area, degree of pollution, governance situation, state of development and re-use, etc., and resolve issues by means of legislative, economic and environmental governance.

Full article in Chinese: http://magazine.caijing.com.cn/2012-06-02/111872853.html

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