Che Shujian, More Attention Shall be Paid to Underground Space Environment during Urbanization

Date: Aug 12, 2011      Source: WEC      

1970s saw severe groundwater pollution by chemical equipments from Liaoyang Chemical Inspection Plant while it was an issue unnoticed at that time, during which people cared less about environmental protection due to backward economic conditions. In 1980s, a large amount of pollution issues appeared in urban area. Some western nations argued that such issues were from lack of effective measures. Actually, such arguments are due to their less knowledge on China, when people do not have enough food to eat, it is unrealistic to turn their attention to environmental protection. Environmental issues were not treated seriously until 2000, when people’s living standards improve greatly, and they felt it important to protect environment.

Environmental pollution in underground space is virtually a far-reaching issue. Underground space protection in 20 years later would be as important as today’s soil, river and ocean protection. Due to excessive and unordered underground space exploitation in recent year, as well as void, misplaced and exceeding-power management, environmental pollution in underground space has become increasingly severe. At the same time, due to acceleration of urban construction and urbanization (1% growth annually), city scale continues to expand, dwellers becomes increasingly dense, which imposed more pressure on the infrastructure.

Subway and tunnels, as the products of economic development and city competition, have become a must and even vogue. More underground pipelines, larger density and more complicated situation lead to frequent accidents, which have severely endangered the normal operation of cities as well as the safety of life and property.

City mayors evidently faced great pressure. I can give you some examples, a gas pipe in Jinan was cut twice in 2009 by constructors, causing disconnection of gas supply for thousands of residents; a more severe case in Nanjing was 728 explosion of chemical pipes; last year, Zhengzhou also experienced water pipes explosion twice in five days; road collapse near Sanyuan Bridge of Beijing occurred for several times, the whole building collapsed in Shanghai. These questions have gone from bad to worse. Therefore, on the one hand, we shall acknowledge our fast economic development, on the other hand, be well aware of the phenomena of void and misplaced supervision or administration on underground pipelines, which are due to insufficient understanding on data or material of urban underground construction.

The main problem of urban underground pipeline over the past 30 years lies in complicated ownership of property rights, which belong to governments, public institutions and different ownership enterprises respectively. Nowadays, most industries only care about their own business rather than share their material or information with others, which brought about huge barrier on management and coordination works.

There now exists around 156 kilometers of gas and heat-fed underground pipeline network in nationwide cities, and the total underground pipelines in domestic cities, taking residential area into account, reaches around 30 thousand kilometers, excluding industrial pipelines, power lines and wires.  

To conclude: first, we paid less attention to pipeline issues. For example, certain long-term biased views of achievement exist among some local governments and sectors, who often make a large amount of investment on ground-level projects in order to increase the achievements in their posts, like skyscrapers, square afforestation, and less investment on underground pipeline construction. As far as I know, one city, in order to host an event, rebuilt the road in front of its government office for three times within a year, resulting in huge financial waste, and drainpipes in many cities have not been renewed since the founding of new China. Mayors in many cities are indifferent to these problems and do not invest on them as a result. A qualified mayor, in my view, shall attach equal importance to the construction of both ground-level and underground projects.

Second, equivocal responsibility remains and coordination is difficult. Each pipeline manager and supervisor should carry out his/her work in a responsible, coordinated and joint way.

Third, material is inaccurate and information is unshared. Less than 50% of filing rate was achieved in large cities as a result of scattered information in different supervisors, modified material, unmeasured information when project finished, untimely filing and no dynamic upgrading. Only a few cities such as Changsha city did a good job in this respect.

Fourth, chaotic pipeline layout. It is reported that 39 thousand kilometers of thermal pipelines (or 32% of the total) in 140 cities in North China are outdated and in extra-service. Such pipelines, with severe safety risk, will bring about safety and pollution problems once accident like explosion occurs.

Fifth, national standards, whose standardization and issue are imperative now.

Sixth, policies, laws and regulation remain incomplete.

Following is some suggestions:

First, the State Council should establish a ministry-level joint conference on urban underground pipeline, with a view to forming comprehensive coordination mechanism.

Second, we should push forward general surveys on urban underground pipelines, to find out what exactly its distribution situation is.

Third, we should build an unified public information platform to realize information sharing.

Fourth, we should enhance coordination and amendment on different pipeline standards and specifications.

Fifth, we should strengthen legislative work on the administration of urban underground pipeline, which will play an important role in improving underground pipeline system, defining clearly their own responsibilities and relevant supervisors, pipeline information management mechanisms, public facilities safety protection mechanism, as well as standardizing information of filing data/material. 

Sixth, we should map out planning on underground space use ASAP, especially for underground pipe galleries, which were designed in advanced countries half a century ago.

Environmental problems, from air to ground and to underground, should be considered as a whole. Underground development problems should be involved and solved as early as possible, as saying goes, ‘nip it in the bud’. I hope underground environmental protection should be put on agenda earlier and arrest the attention of government and all walks of life.

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