By Tom Daly and David Stanway
BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Aug 29 (Reuters) - China's environment ministry said it has not approved any application to build copper concentrate blending facilities so far this year, as copper producers fretting over raw material supply seek permission to operate the controversial plants.
Amid coronavirus-related mining curbs abroad, Chinese copper smelters including Jinchuan Group, Jiangxi Copper and Daye Nonferrous are pursuing blending projects, which mix "dirty" concentrate - containing high amounts of impurities - with clean material to ensure they have enough feedstock.
Such projects must carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA), said Liu Zhiquan, head of the EIA department at the Ministry of Ecology Environment (MEE).
"According to preliminary information, no environmental impact assessment document for copper concentrate blending projects has been approved by the MEE this year," he said at a Friday press briefing.
EIAs should focus on "the ecological impact and the pollution of groundwater and soil caused by ... heavy metals such as arsenic," Liu said, noting imports of concentrate with arsenic content above the stipulated threshold were prohibited.
The maximum permitted content of arsenic, a toxic impurity, in copper concentrate imports in China is 0.5%.
Blending plants are currently few and far between in China, the world's top copper consumer, because of environmental concerns.
Concentrate, or partially processed ore, is often blended in places like Malaysia or Taiwan or in bonded zones into a mix with a low arsenic content accepted by China.
A source with a major copper concentrate supplier said he had received many enquiries about high-arsenic material as smelters hope to receive the go-ahead for blending, which also needs approval from China's customs administration.
Environmental groups have expressed concern that China's inspectors could take short-cuts in order to get the country's coronavirus-hit economy back on track.
Liu said around 76,000 mostly service sector projects had been exempted from EIA registration in order to help them restart operations. However, he said environmental violations were still being punished.
(Reporting by Tom Daly and David Stanway; editing by Jane Wardell)
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