Caixin
Dec 01, 2016 05:42 PM
ENVIRONMENT

Regions Found to Have 'Critical' Heavy Metal Emissions Now Clean Up Act

(Beijing) — Levels of heavy metal pollutants in many parts of China fell by 27.7% from 2007 to 2015, according to a study conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Under China's 12th Five-Year Plan, which ran from 2011 to 2015, the central government invested more than 21 billion yuan ($3 billion) into cutting the volume of five major pollutants — lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic — released by factories.

The 12th Five-Year Plan, approved by the State Council in 2011, included a blueprint outlining the country's goal of cutting down heavy metal pollution in 15 "critical" regions to 15% less than 2007 levels. That goal has now been surpassed, ministry officials announced Tuesday. The 15 key regions all contain some combination of heavy industry, high population density, and major waterways.

Heavy metal waste-control efforts in the critical regions of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces were rated "excellent" by the ministry's pollution inspection teams. Sichuan, Guangdong, and nine other provinces and province-level regions received a "good" rating. Only Inner Mongolia received a mere "pass."

The copper, zinc, and lead-smelting industries — all major polluters — saw combined capacity cuts of more than 7.5 million tons between 2011 and 2015. Leather tanning and lead-battery manufacturing, industries that also contribute to heavy metal pollution levels, were also scaled back.

But cutting down production is only the first step in the long cleanup process.

Once shut down, industrial firms frequently leave behind large volumes of toxic waste that they no longer have to answer for. When more than half of China's sodium dichromate producers were closed during a government clampdown on industrial pollution in the 1980s and 1990s, over 20 Chinese cities inherited massive slag heaps created by years of dumping by factories.

Between 2011 and 2015, local governments in the 15 critical regions cleaned up more than 6.7 million tons of chromium slag that had accumulated over the past five decades, ministry officials said. Chromium slag is a toxic byproduct of the process that makes sodium dichromate, which is used in tanning leather, dyeing textiles and finishing metals.

The Five-Year Plan's pollution reduction program faced its greatest test in March 2011, when Luliang Chemicals Co. Ltd. started dumping a total of 5,000 tons of chromium slag near a village outside Qujing, Yunnan province. Nobody noticed the toxic waste until livestock at a nearby village began dying of mysterious diseases, and villagers' crops started failing. The provincial newspaper Yunnan Information Daily exposed the illegal dumping in August that year.

Qujing, which has a high concentration of chemical plants, is located near the Pearl River, a major source of drinking water for the more than 40 million residents of the Pearl River Delta. Five people connected to the Luliang dumping case were arrested in September 2011.

Although China has significantly reduced its levels of heavy metal pollution over the past five years, three decades of industrialization have meant that current pollution levels are still higher than they have been in most of China's history, the ministry said. The 13th Five-Year Plan, which began this year, will aim to shift China toward cleaner production technologies, and also introduce stricter controls on industries that are major sources of pollution, they added.

Inner Mongolia's continued struggle with toxic waste shows that China still has a way to go when it comes to controlling industrial pollution.

Government inspectors found last month that a major waste disposal plant in the Inner Mongolia city of Baotou had not become fully operational long after construction on the plant had been completed. This meant that many nonferrous metal smelting waste heaps around the city had not been disposed of properly, and continued to pose an environmental hazard.

Contact editor Calum Gordon (calum@caixin.com)

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