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Ten-year Battle to Clean Songhua River

The top environment watchdog on Thursday announced that the rehabilitation effort for the Songhua River, one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the country, would remain in effect for 10 years.

Zhou Shengxian, minister of the State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA), acknowledged that more work needed to be done to rehabilitate the river despite the unprecedented anti-pollution effort that has been carried out so far.

The announcement follows the launch of a five-year pollution-control plan early last year. That plan has a projected budget of 26.6 billion yuan (US$3.5 billion).

Despite that initiative, Zhou said, some heavy-polluting factories continued to operate unchecked and that pollution emergencies were common in the Songhua River basin, posing a great threat to the health of local people and the economy.

Data from 2006 suggest that ecological conditions in the Songhua River and its tributaries have been deteriorating. The river's tributaries were actually more polluted last year than in 2005.

Zhou warned at a work meeting on pollution-control efforts for the Songhua River that it is "imperative" to let the Songhua River "rest in peace and rehabilitate itself".

"It is time to alleviate the burden for this debilitated river," Zhou said.

He said such an effort was badly needed, especially given that the old industrial bases in northeast China had launched a revitalization campaign to reform state-owned enterprises and upgrade their technology.

"In this sense, strengthening pollution controls could also be considered an important step towards adjusting the region's economic structure and changing its growth model," he said.

The minister said a short-term objective would be to keep the water quality of the Songhua River stable through next year and then greatly improve it by 2010.

"In the long term, the ultimate goal must be to restore the river's natural condition and ecology," he said.

Zhou said a vital measure would be to raise the "threshold" of the approval standards for industrial projects.

During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), projects that discharge heavy metals or organic pollutants that do not easily degrade into the river will be strictly banned, he said.

Energy-intensive, heavy-polluting industries like steel and chemical production and smelting will be strictly controlled to prevent pollutants from finding their way into the river.

And Zhou said the SEPA would work faster to eliminate all the small-scale paper mills in the basin and urge the construction of more waste-water processing plants.

The basin of the 1,900-km Songhua River spreads to Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces and the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, representing a combined population of 62 million people.

(China Daily May 11, 2007)

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