By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

On 28 May, the State Council, China’s highest administrative body, released the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution (currently available only in Chinese) to address one of the nation’s most difficult and pressing environmental issues.  This ambitious plan, developed in the wake of increasing consciousness of soil pollution issues, most visibly the students affected by contamination at a school in Jiangsu province this April, will require that 90 percent of contaminated farmland be made safe by 2020, and 95% by 2030.  According to some estimates, the cost of these efforts could reach $1 trillion.  In addition, the Action Plan calls for a detailed national survey of soil conditions to be completed by 2018, including identifying “hotspots” of severe pollution (a topic which was not included in previous reports), categorizing farmland by level of contamination.  The survey will be repeated every 10 years thereafter.  The Action Plan does not, however, provide details on the evaluation and selection of cleanup measures, or define standards for soil remediation or what constitutes a “hotspot.”  Finally, Article 7 of the Action Plan endorses the “polluter pays” (as well as the polluter’s successor) principle seen in the revised Environmental Protection Law and various notices and regulations issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection over the last few years.

As we have covered in previous posts, China entered a new phase of its environmental development in 2014 with the release of the first amendment to its Environmental Protection Law in 25 years.  Yet a key aspect of environmental protection, soil pollution, remained unaddressed – a pattern familiar from the development of environmental law in the United States, where the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act preceded CERCLA (legislation funding and assigning responsibility for cleanup of contaminated sites) by 17 years and 8 years, respectively.  In China, 2014 was also the year a government report was released concluding that 19.4 percent of China’s farmland – an area approximately the size of the UK – was contaminated with cadmium, nickel and arsenic, demonstrating the extent of the problem.  The report also found that 10 percent of the forests and grasslands in the country were similarly contaminated.  A comprehensive soil pollution law, which will contain provisions assigning liability for cleanup of contaminated land, is planned for 2017.

In the meantime, however, the new Action Plan demonstrates that the government is not willing to wait to begin addressing the problem. For multinationals and other China watchers, the implications are clear: China is serious about soil pollution, and those doing business in China need to evaluate environmental risks in light of the government’s increased focus.

Read more on the development of China’s environmental policy:

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