Friday May 25, 2018

Outmoded methods plague polluted land reclamation

2012-01-04 13:22     Web Editor: Su Jie comment
Contaminated soil is remediated by injecting a suitable remediation compound into the material. [Photo/]

Contaminated soil is remediated by injecting a suitable remediation compound into the material. [Photo/]

("Without technology and money, there's no way to clean up the polluted soil," said Ma Jun, technical director of the Beijing Environmental Remediation Co., Ltd (BER).

As technology advances, Western countries like the United States have employed much newer methods to reclaim contaminated soil, but overall, China is still relying on the most common process of excavation and dredging, or "dig and dump," added Ma, who studied and lived in the U.S. for many years.

This process involves extracting contaminated soil that is deemed unrecoverable and transporting it to a landfill. Often, purified soil is used to fill in the area where the extraction took place.

Since China lacks specialized facilities to treat polluted soil and has a limited number of proper waste-disposal sites, most of the contaminated soil is incinerated in cement kilns, a process that produces highly poisonous waste gases such as dioxin.

Ma noted that such kilns are not equipped with facilities to process the exhaust gas, making the secondary pollutants a worse threat than the primary ones.

According to Jiang Lin, vice head of the Beijing Municipal Research Institute of Environmental Protection, China has pioneered dozens of sophisticated methods concerning soil remediation, but none of them has been put into use so far.

Many Chinese remediation companies are still in their infancy, making cleaner techniques difficult to implement, explained Liao Xiaoyong, vice head of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"Some remediation companies were only established because there was a market need, and they don't have the equipment or the technology," Liao added.

"On the whole, there isn't time to do real technical remediation on sites, as this can add several years to project times,", a bilingual website devoted to the environment, quoted Shaun Xie, deputy director of the Committee of Soil and Groundwater Environments of China (CSGEC) and managing director at Environmental Resources Management (ERM) China.

"At this moment, much of the remediation consists of excavating the soil and dumping it, because the need is urgent for development of commercial or residential areas," Xie said.

Statistics from the BER, the country's first environmental company focused on soil remediation set up in 2007, show that almost all remediation projects have been required to be finished within two years. As a result, many of the projects can only apply incineration or "dig and dump" techniques.

Additionally, real estate developers want to keep remediation costs as low as possible, which also restricts the environmental companies from using more sophisticated methods.

Similar to foreign countries, where efforts aimed at cleaning up soil are structured by governments, the Chinese government shoulders most of the cost for soil remediation, despite related policies that hold polluters responsible.

Such policies are hard to carry out effectively in China, according to the BER. "The companies that used to be on the sites were mostly state-owned. Eventually, it is the government that should be to blame for their bankruptcy. The bankrupt enterprises were not able to afford the remediation fees any more. Worse still, sometimes it is quite hard to find the polluters," said Gao Shengda, executive editor-in-chief at, a website focused on environmental remediation.

Local governments are usually reluctant to pay for remediation, added Wan Hongfu, a researcher at the Guangdong Institute of Eco-environment and Soil Sciences.

Wan revealed that his institute once reported a contaminated tract of land totaling 160,000 cubic meters that needed remediation, but was rejected. The local Bureau of Environmental Protection eventually approved only a scrap of 300 cubic meters due to slightly excessive heavy metal contamination.

"Later, our institute was advised to not even mention organic pollutants at all," Wan said.

Johnny Browaeys, former vice president of environmental services at CH2M Hill, a global engineering and construction consultant, told that the key to unlocking the potential of Chinese companies in soil remediation is solving the funding issue.

Last year a workshop on remediation was organized by the Nanjing Institute of Soil Science and CH2M Hill, focusing not only on technologies but also on policies and funding mechanisms, reported the website.

Furthermore, related policies also need to be improved to help spread the best policies. "Many domestic Chinese companies are not driven by corporate social responsibility (CSR),so for these companies the policy will play an important role. Without the regulations, they are not typically willing to spend the money for on-site remediation," explained Shaun Xie.

Yet putting in place a policy that provides both goals for remediation and a financial model is only half the battle; technical knowledge is also required to ensure that sites are cleaned up properly, pointed out

"Remediation technology cannot just be copied from one site to another," warned Tom Darden, chief executive at Cherokee, a U.S.-based private equity investment firm specializing in the development of brownfields (or contaminated sites).

The forecast is not entirely grim. As the Olympic Games in Beijing and the World Expo in Shanghai drew attention to one of China's biggest environmental problems, brownfield sites have also drawn increased focus.

In October, China introduced the country's first national plan on groundwater pollution control, urging a combination of legal, economic, technological and administrative measures for groundwater protection.

An update to the Environmental Impact Assessment Law, the plan systematically includes assessment of groundwater quality in the project approval process, and requires project owners to include remediation measures for groundwater contamination.

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