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Today a Wasteland, Tomorrow Your Home?
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After seven years of silence, Shenyang Smelting Factory is moving again.


In the southern corner of the vast complex, dozens of diggers are gouging out the brown soil. A line of trucks wait to carry it away.


Looking at the site, it doesn't seem any different from the other building sites in the city, the capital and former industrial hub of Northeast China's Liaoning Province.


However, a closer inspection reveals that this is no ordinary site clearance. Engineers are removing exactly one metre of soil, and drivers appear nervous as it is loaded onto their trucks.


"This land has been seriously contaminated," said Suo Lichen, director of the ecology department of the Shenyang Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB). "It is soaked with heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Without processing this polluted soil the site would be left an absolute wasteland."


As China continues to develop its economy, redevelopment of land is becoming more of an issue.


Many tracts of contaminated industrial land, also know as brown field sites, have been converted into residential areas in industrial cities in Liaoning and elsewhere across the country. However, questions remain over whether it is really safe for residents to live in these places.


The reclamation work at Shenyang Smelting Factory is designed to clean up 300,000 square meters of badly polluted soil and poisoned groundwater, according to Suo, head of the clean-up project.


The factory was built in 1936, and became one of the largest comprehensive smelting plants in the region.


It was also one of the largest polluters, belching out lead dust, cadmium and sulphur dioxide (SO2). The pollution was so bad that in 1999, the government ordered it to shut down.


The clean-up operation has two phases treating the contaminated soil and purifying the groundwater.


At present, workers are excavating the soil and sending it to the Shenyang General Industrial Solid Waste Disposal Plant on the city's outskirts.


The EPB will deal with the groundwater by drilling a well and pumping it out for further treatment.


Suo said treating the soil would take about one and a half months and then the site could be redeveloped.


Two weeks ago, however, the only movement inside the factory was a band of 100 or so scavengers scouring the pits and mounds for minerals and scrap iron.


One scavenger, who gave only his surname Li, said he could make around 100 yuan (US$12) a day from digging up the land. "The price of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) has risen quite high recently," he said. "So, stones soaked by copper can also be sold for a good price."


Wang Jianguo, a local inhabitant in his 40s, has lived on the north side of the factory for more than 20 years.


"We dared not open the windows, even in summer, when the factory released the yellow fog," he said, referring to the sulphur dioxide. "It was so strong that no trees in the area could survive."


The factory had to plant new trees every year to replace the dead ones, which is why none of the trees near the former factory site today are taller than three meters.


Wang said he could still smell the pungent chemical odor on sunny days. "It is much, much better now. But if possible, I would have moved as far away as I could."


He said women were barred from entering the factory because the contaminated metal and the radiation were believed to damage their reproductive systems.


"Even now, no one dares to develop this land," Wang said, unaware of the upcoming project. "And as for the houses they construct, no one will buy them."


In fact in the southwest corner of the factory, a new complex of three 12-storey apartments lies empty. The project was a development by the local fire fighting bureau, but since it was completed at the end of last year not a single flat has been sold.


"I know this was the former smelting plant, one of the largest polluters in Shenyang," said Liu Changjie, a resident who is planning to buy a new flat in Tiexi District, where the factory is located, attracted by the cheap prices. "Even though no one can tell whether it is still polluted or not, I wouldn't want to buy one of those houses. Health is the most important thing."


According to Suo of the EPB, Liu has reason to worry. She said that, in her opinion, the land around the old factory site should not be used for housing or schools at all.


"It can have other uses," she said, "but only after it's cleaned up, and even then, I would suggest that some more vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and students keep away."


Already this year there have been problems on redeveloped brown field sites. In Tieling, another city in Liaoning, a developer built a housing complex on the site of a former paper mill, where the groundwater had been polluted dozens of years ago. After moving in, new residents became ill because of chemical poisoning.


As the core of an old industrial area, Shenyang's Tiexi District housed hundreds of smelting, petrochemical and oil paint plants that recklessly dumped hazardous substances. In the past few years most of them have been moved to a newly planned industrial zone on the outskirts of Shenyang. The former factories were pulled down and sold to real estate developers.


The problem is that neither the government nor the developer has to carry out environmental impact assessment, let alone clean up the site, as there is not law requiring them to do so.


As a result, there is no way to prevent unqualified houses from entering the market.


According to the local EPB's survey, the main pollutants left behind are cadmium and lead, two heavy metals that can cause diseases such as leukaemia and other forms of cancer.


"But even if residents get sick, you can hardly prove that it is the contaminated soil that caused the problem. There are numerous things food, air and even medicine that can cause disease," Suo said.


Sun Ming, a former worker at the smelting factory, recalled that all workers were required to go on a one-week break after working for one or two months. And he said many of the former workers suffered cancer.


"All chemical reagents were released without any treatment in the past," Sun said. "I cannot believe this has no impact on human beings."


Due to the country's rapid economic development, more and more cities, especially industrial cities in northeastern China, are faced with the problems of reclaiming brown field sites.


Local governments have no plan or intention to restrict the real estate industry in terms of GDP growth, it remains the goose that lays the golden egg.


"This is about mechanism," Suo said. "We can do nothing without the local government's involvement."


For those considering buying a flat or property, Wang Yun, a Shenyang real estate developer, offers this advice: "You should know not only what transportation is available near the house but also the house's history."


(China Daily August 3, 2006)

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