China to tighten import thresholds for impurities in metal concentrates, sources say

The Chinese government plans to lower the import thresholds for impurities contained in metals concentrates, indicating that the old standards are no longer practical, sources have told Fastmarkets

Copper, zinc, lead, tin and antimony smelters have been consulted on the change, with a generic draft for standards of heavy metal concentrate as well as drafts for specific concentrates both underway, according to different versions of documents seen by Fastmarkets.

“After 15 years, the standards we established in 2006 are no longer up to date. As the environments from where metal resources are mined have changed over time, we have also seen changes in grades and harmful elements of those metal raw materials. We have to look at practical procurement needs and official requirements to adjust the threshold of harmful elements like lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury in metal concentrate,” the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association said in one document.

The GB/T 200424-2006 document - which has been a must-read for every metal supplier aspiring to trade with China - specifies limits on the amount of harmful elements that may be contained in different concentrates.

In the latest draft document to replace GB/T 200424-2006, the amount of arsenic content allowed in all metal concentrates has been lowered.

For instance, the maximum arsenic content allowed in copper concentrate has been lowered to 0.4% from 0.5%; the level allowed in lead concentrate has been lowered from 0.7% to 0.6%; and that for zinc concentrate has been capped at 0.4%, compared with the current 0.6%.

According to an estimate by the International Copper Study Group (ICSG), less than half of the world’s copper concentrate has an arsenic content equivalent to or lower than 0.5%.

The new document will also include guidelines for bismuth and antimony concentrate, and some thallium, fluorine, cadmium and chromium thresholds will be introduced to different types of concentrates.

Dividing line

For miners and traders, the GB/T 200424-2006 document draws a dividing line between products that could be marketable to the world’s biggest metal consumer and those that could not. Those that are not eligible for direct import have to be blended - at additional cost - with cleaner material to meet the Chinese criteria.

Smelters clearly prefer standard, clean feed over complex material.

For copper concentrate, a new document also is being drafted by Jiangxi Copper, Tongling Nonferrous and Daye Nonferrous to replace YS/T318-2007. A third draft seen by Fastmarkets this week - which was said to be the finalized version - added chlorine content as a new impurity to be measured.

Under the new proposal, the maximum chlorine content allowed in copper concentrate will be set at 0.4%. Another mentioned change is the lowering of the arsenic content threshold from 0.5% to 0.4%.

The original five categories of copper concentrate listed in YS/T318-2007, which cover material with a minimum copper content ranging from 13% to 32%, will be narrowed down to four categories covering a minimum copper content range of 13-26%.

Details concerning sampling practices and arbitration periods have also been revised.

Currently, three samples are required. Under the proposal, four samples of copper concentrate will have to be prepared, with one sample kept by the supplier and one sent to a laboratory. Importers of copper concentrate will have to keep two samples for future reference and potential arbitration. For arbitration purposes, domestic concentrate samples will be required to be kept for 90 days and imported concentrate for 180 days.

“This one has been approved by many smelters already. Official [word] has not come back yet on the implementation date, but it is highly likely to be next year,” one smelter source said.

Some other smelter sources, however, said the new standards would not be effective until the spring of 2024.

Chinese authorities also tried to tighten the impurities thresholds for copper concentrate in 2019, reducing the limits not only for arsenic but also for fluorine, lead and cadmium. The proposal faced strong opposition from major smelters at the time.

Given its major smelting capacity, China relies heavily on overseas raw materials for its base metals production. Last year, the country imported 23.4 million tonnes of copper concentrate, 3.6 million tonnes of zinc concentrate and 1.2 million tonnes of lead concentrate.

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