Now soil pollution a 'state secret' in China
China’s top environmental watchdog has rejected a request to publish findings of a high-profile national survey on soil pollution, citing "state secrecy". It is a decision which both legal and environmental experts are calling irresponsible.
With public health at risk – as contaminated land jeopardizes food safety and can cause cancer or other health problems for local residents – critics are asking just what, in its five-year study into ground contamination, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has to hide.
"The government has a responsibility to warn the public whether a piece of land is safe to grow crops or build a home," said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Soil contamination might pose more risk than other forms of pollution because it is not as visible and people do not know how to take precautions against it.”
According to Beijing-based lawyer Dong Zhengwei, who requested the findings from the environmental ministry on January 30, the ministry's claim is rather ill-founded, because the regulations on disclosure of government information actually allows for the release of so-called “national secrets” if they involve public interest.
Dong said the rejection also betrayed a promise made in June by Wu Xiaoqing , vice-minister of the environment, to "publish findings at an appropriate time" following a five-year ground-pollution survey that started in 2006 and cost 1 billion yuan (USD160 million).
The survey tested 200,000 samples of soil, ground water and farm produce nationwide, resulting in about 5 million pieces of data, the ministry said in 2011. The ministry had hoped the study would provide a full understanding of soil pollution, the reasons behind it and the impact it has on society.
Three years after the investigation was completed, however, the results have yet to be published. Media reports in 2012 quoted officials with the ministry as saying they were still waiting for approval from the State Council. Previous statistics published by the ministry showed that China had 10 million hectares of polluted farm land, accounting for 8.3 percent of total arable land.
In January the State Council released a statement on soil pollution, saying that a soil-monitoring network will be built, covering 60 percent of the country's arable land and drinking water sources for more than 500,000 people.
It said that by 2020, the country's soil quality will be improved through effective protection measures.
"The environmental ministry has been releasing real-time information about air pollution even though the air in Beijing was so bad last month. In contrast, soil pollution is a 'state secret'," Dong said. "Does this suggest that the land is contaminated much worse than the air?"
Authorities have a poor record of transparency on pollution information. A five-year national plan to tackle heavy-metal pollution by 2015 has never been made public.
Ma said authorities deemed the soil-pollution findings "too sensitive", and he said there were likely questions about the accuracy of the findings, because the survey was met with strong resistance from local governments.
"But the ministry should not use that as an excuse not to come clean on pollution. At the very least it could start with less-sensitive findings and tackle the severe problems, and set a timetable to release all of the findings."
The ministry said in 2006 that more than 10 percent of farmland on the mainland was polluted, and that about 12 million tonnes of grain was contaminated by heavy metals annually. Updated figures have not been released since then.