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UPDATED: May 7, 2012 NO.19 MAY 10, 2012
Healing the Land
As concerns grow over soil contamination in urban areas, soil remediation draws attention
By Yin Pumin

Zhao Hualin, Director of the Department of Total Pollutants Control of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, believes that soil and underground water remediation will become a new source of environmental industry growth in 2016-20.

Difficulties still many

"Despite the growing demand, however, there are only a few specialized institutions in the field," said Huang Shenfa, Deputy Director of SAES, which carries out most of the soil remediation projects in the city. Sometimes the academy was "too busy to handle some projects," according to Huang.

"Contaminated industrial sites are usually found downtown and are always being sought by real estate developers. It is a concern when management policies and regulations are lax," said Shen Jianhua, a senior researcher with the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences under the CAS.

He said that over the past 20 years, because of the rapid development of the economy and human activities, environmental pollution has become more complex. Pollution now comes from multiple sources, and that makes remediation efforts even more difficult.

"We lack detailed laws and national standards that give a clear guideline for which kinds of soil need repairing, how deep the remediation should go and who should supervise this," Shen said.

Under such conditions, there have been no unified standards concerning pricing and clean-up technologies, and as of today no companies in the industry have disclosed their cost structures for remediation, said the Southern Weekend.

The cost of detoxifying a piece of land is difficult to estimate because no one knows what pollutants lie deep underground before it is excavated, said the report. Moreover, the shorter the time allotted to the cleaners to complete their job is, the higher the charge is.

Currently, remediation technologies in China remain underdeveloped. Most cleaners simply excavate, remove the contaminated soil and dump it elsewhere without neutralizing the poisonous elements, even though many new technologies have been employed in many Western countries.

For example, since China lacks specialized facilities to treat polluted soil and has only a limited number of proper waste-disposal sites, most of the contaminated soil is incinerated in cement kilns, a process that produces highly poisonous waste gases such as dioxin.

Ma Jun, a technical director at the BCEG Environmental Remediation Co. Ltd., said that such kilns are not equipped with facilities to process the exhaust gas, making the secondary pollutants a worse threat than primary ones.

According to Jiang Lin, Deputy Director of the Beijing Municipal Research Institute of Environmental Protection, China has pioneered dozens of sophisticated methods concerning soil remediation, but none of them has been put into use so far.

Many Chinese remediation companies are still in their infancy, making cleaner technologies difficult to implement, explained Liao Xiaoyong, Vice Director of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research affiliated to the CAS.

"Some remediation companies were only established because there was market demand and they don't have the essential equipment or technologies," Liao added.

Given the pressure to develop commercial or residential areas as quickly as possible to make higher profits, there isn't time to do real technical remediation on sites, as this can add several years to project times, said the Southern Weekend.

Statistics from the BCEG Environmental Remediation show that almost all remediation projects have been required to be finished within two years. As a result, many of the projects can only apply incineration or dig-and-dump technologies.

Additionally, real estate developers want to keep remediation costs as low as possible, which also prevents environmental companies from using more sophisticated methods.

Some developers argue that they should not pay all the costs of remediation because they didn't cause the pollution.

Wang Shuyi, Director of the Research Institute of Environmental Law at Wuhan University in Wuhan, Hubei, said that original polluters should pay for the remediation. In cases where it's impossible to identify who's liable, he suggested the money should come from public funding.

The World Bank report recommended using economic measures such as loans, dedicated subsidies and environment taxes to support the clean-up of toxic sites. Another possibility, used in many Western countries, is setting up a superfund; stakeholders put in money every year to support remediation.

Email us at: yinpumin@bjreview.com

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