By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

On 22 June 2017, Chinese legislators released draft proposals to combat soil pollution in China at a bimonthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. The legislation complements the State Council’s ambitious plan to address soil pollution – an area not specifically covered by Chinese environmental law at present. Both  the Council’s plan and the corresponding draft legislation are a response to a series of highly publicised incidents, including one in Jiangsu Province where nearly 500 school students fell ill after exposure to contaminated soil. These incidents have focused public attention on the issue of soil contamination, which had previously received little attention due to the more obvious air pollution issues in Chinese cities.

The proposed law is similar to the United States Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund), in that the law requires landowners to investigate soil contamination where it is identified and imposes liability for soil contamination cleanup on the parties responsible for the pollution — or, if the responsible party cannot be found, on the landowner. The proposed law also establishes a pollution cleanup fund for situations in which the responsible party or landowner either cannot be located or lacks the funds to pay. In cases where the contamination occurred prior to the passage of the new law, a landowner held responsible may also apply to the cleanup fund for reimbursement of the remediation costs. In addition, the proposed law calls for regulators to establish tax benefits for soil remediation, standards for soil monitoring, reporting of contamination data, limits on the release of hazardous substances on farmland, and for more stringent environmental impact evaluations of construction projects (including the prohibition of construction on polluted land until the land has been remediated to the applicable standard).

By Paul Davies, Andrew Westgate and Ei Nge Htut

In reforming and updating its environmental laws, China has until recently been focusing on air pollution. Attention is now turning to addressing water and soil pollution as well. For example, the Chinese government is now considering more robust penalties for those responsible for water pollution, indicating that the government could ban the building of homes and schools in areas with contaminated soil.

China’s issues with air pollution are well-known, with some urban areas experiencing particulate pollution levels exceeding those found in forest fires. A new study from Nanjing University’s School of the Environment estimates that smog kills 1.1 million people a year and is responsible for a third of deaths in China. As a result, the Chinese government is increasingly open to innovative prevention strategies. A recent example is the Liuzhou Forest City — designed by Stefano Boeri, an Italian architect famed for his “Vertical Forest” plant-covered skyscrapers. The Liuzhou Forest City will house up to 30,000 residents and is due for completion by 2020. Built across 175 hectares along the Liu River in Liuzhou, the Liuzhou Forest City will feature one million plants and 40,000 trees of over 100 different species that are intended to absorb 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 57 tonnes of pollutants annually, producing 900 tonnes of oxygen in the process. In addition to reducing air pollution, it is predicted that the plant life should reduce average air temperatures, create a noise barrier, and provide a habitat for wildlife. A high-speed electric rail line with geothermal energy-powered air conditioning and solar panels for electricity will connect the new development to the city of Liuzhou.