Chinese lawmakers on Thursday began deliberating a draft for the country's first law on soil pollution as part of an escalating national war against pollution.
The draft law promised funds, and a nationwide soil survey every ten years. It comes amid increasing efforts to address the environmental cost of decades of breakneck growth.
Explaining the draft to lawmakers at the start of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee's bi-monthly session, Luo Qingquan, deputy head of the NPC's environment and resources protection committee, called the soil condition "grim."
Soil pollution is a substantial obstacle on the way to building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, he said.
A strict environmental protection system, such as the one proposed in the draft law, is the only way to improve soil quality and ensure agricultural produce is safe for consumption, he said.
THE NEGLECTED THREAT
Soil pollution, along with air and water pollution, is one consequence of reckless economic development.
Chin revised its law on air pollution in 2015, restricting various sources of smog and making environmental data more transparent. Lawmakers are currently mulling an amendment to the law on water pollution, which was enacted in 1984.
Currently, there is no dedicated law on soil pollution, but just a handful of related provisions scattered across other laws.
Soil pollution is a largely invisible threat. Nearly all known pollutants carried by air or water eventually find their way into the soil.
A string of food scandals, especially those involving rice and wheat, have been linked to soil contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium.
Last year, the State Council, China's cabinet, released an Action Plan for Soil Pollution Prevention and Control, which pledged to "curb the worsening soil pollution by 2020, put soil pollution risks under control by 2030, and form a virtuous cycle in the ecosystem by 2050."
Calling soil the "ultimate receptor" of all pollutants, Luo said soil pollution had already reached alarming levels.
Figures from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources show that about 16.1 percent of China's surveyed land tested positive for excessive levels of pollution. About 19.4 percent of the surveyed arable land had levels of pollution higher than the national standard. Scientists warn this may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The lack of a specific law on soil pollution, and disturbingly lenient penalties for environmental damage -- at least until 2015 when a new law on environmental protection came into effect -- has taken their toll on China's soil.
The draft law will address the legal void.
According to the new draft law, submitted to the top legislature for its first reading, everyone is obliged to prevent soil pollution, and those responsible for damage or contamination will be held accountable. National standards for soil pollution risk control will be rolled out across the country.
Monitoring stations will be established, and data will be shared among environmental, agricultural, housing, forestry, health, and land resource authorities.
Environmental protection authorities will release soil information and submit pollution prevention plans to central and local governments.
Construction projects that may cause soil pollution will be subject to environmental impact evaluations.
Enterprises involved in the production, use, storage, transport, recycling or disposal of pollutants must record and monitor their annual discharge levels and transfer volume and report this data to the authorities. All firms must prove that they have systems in place to prevent toxic substances from entering the soil.
Soil must be regularly tested, especially around enterprises, and sewage and waste treatment facilities.
FARMS ON THE FRONTLINE
Farming and food safety are highlighted as priority areas.
According to the draft, all pesticides and fertilizers linked to pollution risks must be recorded.
About one-third of the world's chemical pesticides, or 1.4 million tonnes, are used in China every year. China uses 2.5 times more pesticides than most developed countries.
The draft law also proposes a ban on the discharge of sewage, sludge and ore tailings, which contain excessive heavy metal and organic pollutants, onto farm land.
Industrial solid waste, household garbage contaminated by excessive heavy metal or other toxins as well as polluted soil cannot be used in land reclamation projects, the draft said.
Farm land will be divided into three categories: the least polluted should be prioritized for protection; the most polluted for intense treatment; and that lies in between should remain safe.
Farm land rendered unsuitable for grain production should be left to fallow or returned to forests and grasslands.
Meanwhile, residential and public facilities must not be built on polluted land, the draft said.
Those responsible for soil pollution should take measures to rehabilitate contaminated land and ground water, while land owners and local governments must step in should they fail to do so.
Soil pollution prevention funds will be set up at both the central and local government levels to cover expenses when necessary, the draft said.
It said the government would encourage financial institutions to increase credit supply to support soil pollution control and remediation projects, and favorable taxation policies will be designed to support enterprises engaged in such projects.