Let’s rephrase that – the US isn’t importing these metals by choice. Mercury, cadmium and other metals are falling on US cities, lakes and streams from Chinese coal fired power plants, smelters and waste incinerators. Studies at the University of Washington and the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, IL have estimated that a sixth of the mercury now falling on North American lakes comes from Asia, particularly China according to a NY Times report. A study made in 2004 and reported in YaleGlobal suggested 30% of the mercury falling on US soil came from abroad and much of it from China.
The problem for China is establishing standards both for new plant construction and enforcing standards on established plants. Take incinerators, for example. The New York Times article illustrates the problem by looking at two incinerators in the same city Shenzhen, one, Longgang is privately owned and the other Baoan is run by the local municipality. The Baoan incinerator costs ten times as much as the Longgang incinerator per ton of trash burning capacity, yet Baoan produces almost no dioxin or other pollutants whereas Longgang pours out so much black smoke and hazardous chemicals even the locals have been driven to stage a one day sit in to try and prevent a third incinerator being built on the site. In addition, Baoan produces enough power to light 40,000 homes showing waste disposal can be clean and productive if handled properly. But the country’s environmental standards currently allow incinerators to emit 10 times the levels allowed in Europe or North America.
Government officials have warned that Beijing’s landfills will run out of space within five years so the race is on to find a solution. Even incineration produces waste, a highly toxic ash containing heavy metals and dioxins that needs to be safely stored in leak proof landfills so what space remains needs to be managed and preserved for growing volumes of ash.
China is going through the same kind of rapid industrialization that Europe and North America did in the 1850-1900’s. Studies of Arctic ice show that much of the cadmium, lead and thallium deposited in the Arctic came from this industrialization in the same way that China is now emitting pollutants that are falling on the US. The difference is in the 1800’s the technology didn’t exist to do anything about it, today it does. All it takes is money and a centralized will imposing higher standards. China has the first, but has so far shown itself weak in the second.