The Tianjin disaster has highlighted the costly problem of industrial pollution on China’s soil

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The chemicals warehouse explosions in the port city of Tianjin last month reached straight into Yan Hongmei’s apartment, fracturing her mother’s pelvis when a window frame crashed on to her bed. A few days later, rain sprinkled the city with foamy yellowish flecks. The day after that, thousands of dead fish turned riverbanks into a silvery-white mass.

“They say there are no problems now, but what about the future? What if our children will be affected down the road?” she said as she begged officials to buy her home. “We are afraid of the pollution posed by chemicals. Even though they say there is no pollution and it is safe, we still believe pollution exists.”

The fallout in Tianjin — from air, to water, to soil — is mirrored in industrial pollution across China. The thick smog that blocks the sun and causes hospital admissions to rise, often dubbed the “smog-ocalypse”, makes headlines worldwide. Rivers sometimes inexplicably turn red, plagues of dead fish can materialise overnight and algae blooms turn lakes bright green.

But soil pollution — invisible, its effects lingering long after the original polluter is gone — may be the thorniest problem of them all.

Faced with public discontent, Beijing has started to address air pollution by modernising factories and moving coal-consuming industries away from cities. By 2020, many major waterways are supposed to meet new drinking water standards. Some of these remedies may be counter-productive, since moving polluting factories to the hinterlands can have the perverse effect of fouling air, soil and water closer to river sources.

Yet the government is only now beginning to grapple with soil pollution, after years in which experts struggled to bring attention to the issue.

In 2004, workers digging Beijing’s Songjiazhuang subway station were poisoned by gases leeching from an abandoned pesticide plant. That sparked China’s first regulations on decontaminating abandoned industrial sites. Recent incidents, including cyanide contamination after the Tianjin blasts, are raising public awareness.

“China has entered its Love Canal era,” says Lan Hong, a professor at Renmin University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, who is drafting a plan to finance China’s soil pollution clean-up. The 1970s discovery that the Love Canal neighbourhood near Niagara Falls was built on toxic waste led to the US “Superfund” for brownfield sites.

China needs Rmb7tn ($1.1tn) to clean up soil pollution, equivalent to one-third of its entire foreign exchange reserves, if it uses practices developed in the US and Japan, Ms Lan estimates. “China can’t afford it,” she says.

The Chinese central bank estimates that the environment ministry’s targets for cleaner air and water alone require Rmb2tn a year over the next five years, although the central bank wants “green financing” to relieve government coffers. A soil pollution action plan in the works will also involve significant budget allocations during the next five-year plan from 2016-2020. Otherwise, Ms Lan says, at current spending of about Rmb40bn a year, sorting out soil pollution “will take us 1,000 years”.

Redevelopment concerns

“Green financing” only goes so far. Investors can charge for treated wastewater, but there is little return on soil remediation. “The biggest challenge is financing. Where’s the money coming from?” one businessman says.

One funding source is developers who, according to World Bank studies, should be willing to clean up contaminated urban sites to raise the value of their land. But that idea has yet to bear fruit. A special fund was created for one flagship site, the blackened former campus of Shougang Steel in Beijing, after Shougang balked at spending $800m to rehabilitate the land.

When housing has been built near reclaimed sites, there are scant profits for developers. China’s largest clean-up project to date, a former coking plant in Beijing, is ringed by low-income apartments housing Beijingers forced out of historic hutong neighbourhoods. Bitter residents spend three times their subsidised rent on bottled water.

Yet even if urban industrial sites do begin to sprout luxury apartments, soil pollution will still blight rust belt towns and prime farmland. “The US and Europe have a lot of brownfield sites but China is different, because a lot of its agricultural land is polluted,” says Chen Tongbin, director of the Center for Environmental Remediation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Despite the challenges China faces in cleaning up its soil, some give it credit for doing far more than most other developing economies. The former Soviet Union is full of abandoned industrial sites while pollution from mining and factory waste is a growing problem in Africa and Asia.

“The country that’s furthest along in all this is China. The steps they have taken are far beyond any other country outside of the west,” says Rich Fuller, president of soil remediation specialists Pure Earth.

Beginning in the 1950s, central planners built heavy industrial plants deep in the countryside. Winds and rain carried black smoke and dust into surrounding towns. Worse, irrigation canals distributed wastewater from mines and smelters into fields miles away. When economic reforms kicked off in the 1980, farmers over-applied pesticides and fertiliser to combat stunted yields from dead soil.

A growing recognition that soil pollution contaminates water, which in turn pollutes farmland, has forced Beijing to speed up its soil pollution plan, rather than tackling air, then water and leaving soil for last.

In 2011, Caixin magazine shocked the nation with its cover photo of a rice plant, the grain turned a silvery metallic colour. It revealed that rice from southern Hunan province, the top producer, was contaminated with cadmium.

The report hit a nerve with city dwellers already anxious about food safety and persistent smog. “The effects of pollution and of the misuse of agricultural inputs like pesticides and fertiliser will become the next big stage in the food safety debate,” says Xu Liqing, who researches food safety and environmental issues at Jiangnan University School of Business.

Worried about sales of rice and other crops, Hunan’s provincial government has been vague about where exactly the contamination lies. It is not alone.

In 2014, China finally published a $150m national soil pollution survey from 2006-2011 that had been classified as a “state secret”. Officials and experts were “really tense” before the report’s release, one insider says, fearing it would harm agricultural trade. Hunan’s reputation for “cadmium rice” has hurt sales, many believe, even though official statistics show output has risen since the Caixin report.

The findings were alarming: nearly one-fifth of arable land was contaminated. There was no indication of how the contamination was distributed, or where the hotspots are.

The concern over contaminated crops reflects urban citizens’ ability to set the national agenda. That partly explains the preference for moving polluting plants away from prosperous cities to areas where regulations are laxer and people are too poor to complain.

While citizens worry about food and air, the risks linger in drinking water and soil. Heavy metals are inhaled with the dust that children kick up as they play, motes that are stirred by farmers’ hoes and passing cars. In one Hunan valley hit by an arsenic spill, villagers were told not to eat local crops or drink local water. Four years later, babies’ hair samples showed the same elevated levels of arsenic as the adult population.

‘Burn and bury’

Japan’s version of Love Canal was cadmium and mercury poisoning that came to light in the 1960s. Remediation methods there, like the US, involve scraping up contaminated soil, burning it and burying it — or in some cases dumping it deep at sea. That approach is ill-suited to contaminated farmland. The burn-and-bury method can cost $47,000 per hectare. With farming already banned from an estimated 3.3m hectares in China, the bill would be astronomical.

There is also the question of oversight. An economic slowdown has turned real estate developers into soil remediation contractors. If untrained or unscrupulous contractors cut corners by improperly sealing incinerators or neglecting to line burial pits, pollutants would re-enter the air, water and ground.

Another method under trial is the use of chemicals to fix metals in the soil. Chinese experts are divided on the results. Some recoil at curing soil pollution by injecting more chemicals. Also, proper application requires skilled workers and different pollutants require different chemicals, complicating the scalable solution that bureaucrats want.

Every approach to solving the problem involves a trade-off. “China’s at the stage where it’s trying to assess the magnitude of the problem,” says Scott Stefl, general business director for PeroxyChem, which manufactures products that fix metals in the soil. “There’s no silver bullet.”

The fern gently spreading its fronds at Mr Chen’s office at CAS represents another hope. Phytoremediation — the use of plants to suck heavy metals from fields and paddies — promises a cheap and effective solution. It also carries risks. The crop must be burnt and buried, or the heavy metals will re-enter the soil. Rice is particularly suited to absorbing heavy metals, but what if someone sells the tainted crop?

Some badly contaminated villages are switching to ornamental crops, like flowers or saplings, that cannot be eaten. That preserves agricultural income but does not address health risks. And it cannot be applied broadly without denting food production.

Slower, cheaper options carry hidden costs. The longer it takes to treat a plot, the longer that land is idle. Even the generous cost estimates developed by Ms Lan of Renmin University do not include compensation for lost harvests.

That means that Chinese farmers might oppose removing the pollutants that are slowly seeping into their own bones and blood. Even stunted crops can be sold, and many in the countryside have no other source of income.

Relocation issues

A decade ago, heavy metal concentrations in the Xiang river prompted Hunan’s government to relocate metals processors from two cities, Xiangtan and Zhuzhou, to protect drinking water in the capital, Changsha. Upstream cities like Hengyang enthusiastically welcomed the factories as a boost to growth.

Last year, children living near one Hengyang plant tested for high levels of lead. The city pledged to move it again, to the other side of town.

Poisoning by lead, cadmium or other metals particularly harms the young. Riots by parents of poisoned children add social unrest to the long list of reasons for covering up the extent of soil pollution. “Access to information is currently limited for the bottom 40 per cent, who are known to be relatively more exposed to degraded or highly polluted areas than other population groups,” the World Bank wrote when it provided a $15m grant this April to clean up former pesticide factories.

The “bottom 40 per cent” are the only people living in the village of Zhengjiang, tucked between an abandoned chemicals compound and the high levees of the Xiang river in Hunan. Crops used to die when heavy rains washed soot from the complex into the fields. Now they grow better, explains Mr Yang, a local scrap dealer, while his mentally handicapped teenage assistant grins behind him.

Zhengjiang’s first plant opened in 1980. Soon 20 different processors spewed smoke into the air and fouled the river and fields. “Back then, no one cared if it was poison or not. They only wanted the money,” Mr Yang says.

Eight years ago, a provincial environmental team arrived to test the village well. They were so horrified that they cemented it up. Yellow bubbles used to appear in boiling water, says a shopkeeper whose wife, daughter and baby granddaughter have stuck with bottled water ever since.

The chemical plants left Zhengjiang two years ago. “They went somewhere in the mountains, where people aren’t crowded up against them like here,” Mr Yang says. Remediation plans posted online by the Xiangtan government include transforming the area into a “service industry hub”. One retired village cadre was vaguely aware of plans to relocate. No one else had been told.

A few months ago, the villagers noticed a team testing the ground. One said he was testing for soil pollution. Villagers have not heard anything since.

Additional reporting by Owen Guo

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