UMD: A Globally Connected University

Anhui Environmental Protection Department Looks to Remediate Heavy Metal Contamination in Farmlands

By Michelle Winglee

University of Maryland Soil Science Professor Raymond Weil poses with the group after discussing some of the sustainable farming methods used by Maryland farmers. 

After nearly 500 Chinese students fell ill last April, with symptoms such as rashes and nosebleeds from a school built too close to a former fertilizer and pesticide factory, combatting soil pollution has become a top environmental priority in China. A month after the incident China’s central government released a new plan to tackle soil pollution.

“Soil pollution remediation has become a major issue in China,” said Xie Xianzheng, Director of the Division of Soil Pollution and Management for Anhui’s Environmental Protection Department, adding that since China’s environmental law was revised in 2014 there has been heightened greater emphasis on environmental clean-up.

Attending a two-week training program in February organized by the University of Maryland’s Office of China Affairs, an Anhui Province Environmental Protection Department delegation learned from U.S. experiences on heavy metal soil pollution assessment and remediation. The group of Chinese engineers and policy makers learned about political, legal, and technical clean-up systems in the United States through a series of classroom lectures and on-site visits.

The U.S. has had several cases of environmental clean-up to learn from. Speaker Rick Otis, with over 8-years of experience managing environmental policy issues at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cited the 1970’s Niagara Falls Love Canal example where a school neighborhood had been built atop a former industrial waste dump. Public outcry and evacuation of the area spurred new environmental policy, including the federal Superfund program that holds polluters responsible for environmental damages.

University of Maryland School of Law Professor Robert Percival further discussed the role of legal requirements in spurring innovation and holding industry accountable. In addition to the polluter-pays U.S. Superfund system, Professor Percival cited how environmental regulations led the coal industry to develop cleaner smelter technologies. Anhui Province, which relies heavily on industries like mining and smelting, faces similar challenges in curbing environmental damage from industry.

From a science perspective, former United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agronomist Dr. Rufus Chaney added insight into new technologies for soil remediation and methods for soil testing. Through phytoextraction, certain plants can reduce heavy metals in soils, such as cadmium – a particular issue in China’s rice fields. Dr. Chaney emphasized that depending on the type of pollution, through proper management and soil testing, previously contaminated soils could be suitable for growing food.

In addition to lectures, the group also had the opportunity to visit farms, including a tour of UMD’s sustainable Terp farm as well as a USDA conservation service center. The delegation also paid a visit to the Maryland Office of the Secretary of State – furthering the Anhui-Maryland sister state relationship.

“We have learned a lot,” said Cheng Weihua, Director of the Environmental Protection Bureau of Yuexi County, “the U.S. legal structure and management governing environmental practices is quite comprehensive.” Cheng remarked that science-based management practices and public participation through open forums made particular impressions on him.  Cheng looks forward to applying what he’s learned and maintaining connections with U.S. experts for future collaborations when he returns to Anhui.