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Most Polluted City in China

Coal Fuels Economy, and Pollution Worldwide

November 4, 2004


LINFEN, China -- On some nights when the wind blows on the outskirts of town, a foul chemical smell penetrates the air so intensely that residents hold their noses and run into their homes.

In the winter, the coal dust is so thick, many people spend the entire season coughing.

Like much of the rest of Shanxi province in northern China, the industrial city of Linfen thrives on coal. Coal mining, coal processing and coal-fired power plants keep the people of Shanxi employed and supply most of China's energy needs.

It is also one of the most environmentally dangerous spots in the world -- Linfen (pop. 4 million) is the dirtiest city in China, and perhaps one of the most polluted places on the planet.

"When I spit in the mornings, it's black," said Li Ping, as she sat with her neighbors sewing shoes.

Her village at the edge of Linfen is adjacent to the Hexi power plant, a cement works and a factory making lemon flavoring for soft drinks, as well as numerous coal-processing facilities. The industries have fouled the air, killed fish in the stream and made the soil so toxic no vegetables will grow.

The three most polluted cities in China are all in Shanxi, the most coal-rich province. The problem is getting only worse.

With its energy shortage reaching crisis levels, China is furiously building new coal-fired power plants and bringing outdated ones back online. Years of improvements in pollution control are suddenly being reversed.

The pollutants are traveling well beyond China's borders, even to the United States.

South Korea and Japan blame China's unprecedented economic expansion for some of their pollution. And in Hong Kong, the number of intensely smoggy days has risen dramatically.

In tests over the summer, Robert Talbot, director of the University of New Hampshire's Climate Change Research Center, said he found "moderately intense" pollution from Asia had traveled across the Pacific Ocean to America.

"There definitely appears to be a trend where a fairly clean Pacific maybe two decades ago shows signs of industrial emissions and ozone levels that are increasing," he said. "There's speculation that certain regions of the United States on the West coast will not be able to meet air quality standards within the next 10 years because of Asia."

By the effect, air pollution from the U.S. East coast is crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. "So the air is sort of circulating around the Northern Hemisphere and each continent just keeps adding to it," he said.

For China, the bottom line is that coal is cheap and plentiful. China has enough to last another 80 to 100 years, said Bo Q. Lin, an energy specialist at the Asian Development Bank based in Manila.

China is also trying to increase use of hydropower and renewable energy sources, but "coal-fired (power plants) are always their first choice because they're so cheap," he said.

With the economy booming, coal consumption has been explosive in recent years. It grew from 1 billion tons in 2000 to 1.7 billion tons last year. Many experts predict it could reach 3 billion tons in 2010.

"Double the coal means double the emissions, double the environmental impact," Lin said.

Most Chinese cities have very poor air quality, and some rank among the most polluted in the world. Although air pollution had begun to decline in 2000 as a result of government efforts, it jumped up again in 2003.

Coal is a polluting fossil fuel, and China's power plants are especially inefficient. Burning coal releases sulfur dioxide (a major contributor to acid rain), nitrogen oxides, dust particles and carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming. China is now the world's second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after the United States.

Powering China's economic miracle has exacted a high toll on people's health in this country of 1.3 billion. The Health Ministry recently announced that the rate of lung cancer has doubled in the last decade. Chronic pulmonary diseases linked to excessively high concentrations of particulates, which can be breathed directly into the lungs, account for 9.1 deaths per 10,000 people in urban areas in China, five times higher than in the United States, according to Lin.

A just-completed four-year study by Harvard University's Center for the Environment found about 100,000 cases of premature death annually due to exposure to particulate matter and sulfur dioxide, said Chris Nielsen, executive director of the center's China Project. It also found tens of millions of cases of asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, emergency room visits and various other ills.

But the full extent of the health problems caused by pollution may not be known because the government's raw data is apparently off-limits, even to Chinese researchers. Zou Ji, vice dean of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at the prestigious People's University in Beijing, has tried without success to access detailed health data from government sources.

"I don't know why. They just say it's confidential," he said.

That doesn't mean the government isn't collecting it. Linfen health officials go frequently to the village next to the Hexi power plant, residents say. Just last month, during a mandatory breast exam, Meng Yunping, 43, was told she has breast cancer and was given a prescription for some drugs. But she didn't believe the diagnosis, a measure of how untrustworthy the local government is to ordinary people.

"I feel fine," she said. "I think they mainly wanted to sell me medicine."

It doesn't worry her that several of her neighbors have died of cancers of the uterine, stomach, breast and throat. Not that she hasn't noticed the pollution. The bad smells and black dust covering the corn fields are sometimes unbearable, she said.

"Sometimes when you're biking you can't even open your eyes because of the coal dust," she said. "But I have parents and children. Even if I'm not in good health, I have to earn money."

While power generation is responsible for just under half of China's air pollution, the Harvard study found that the cement industry and vehicle traffic are large and growing contributors as well.

Private car ownership has been surging, and with the unbridled rate of construction of new buildings, shopping centers, freeways and just about everything else, China is consuming 40 percent of the world's cement supply.

The cement industry in China is especially dangerous because it's manufactured "in thousands of small, even mom-and-pop operations," Nielsen said. "They're operate outside regulatory oversight."

China has environmental standards monitored by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). But local SEPA inspectors report not to Beijing but to local governments, which care more about maintaining economic output and employment levels than controlling emissions.

What's more, fines are so low that it's cheaper for industries to pollute than not. The costs of installing the necessary control equipment and operating it are far higher than any fines they face. Plus, industries have leverage over the government.

"The company says, 'if you raise my cost, I'll reduce my employment,'" said Zou.

Because the five main power generation companies are state-owned, they're not motivated by normal market considerations, such as a return on investment. Their main goal, Lin said, is simply to get bigger. When there's a power glut, the government won't approve any expansions. But in times of shortage, "the government can't say no," he said. "As a result, they're expanding unbelievably fast."

The industry wants to build an additional 400 gigawatts by 2010, doubling its current capacity, meaning China could have an energy surplus as early as 2007, Lin said.

"It took 50 years to build what they have now," he said. "Now they want to double that in six years."

Leaders in Beijing have recognized the environmental crisis they face and have launched the concept of assessing economic performance with the costs of environmental damage factored in. The idea is to motivate local officials, who are evaluated based on the performance of the economy, to control pollution. Lin said it's a good first step but implementation has been slow.

Endemic corruption is another potential obstacle. Although the government will pour $157 million over the next three years into cleaning up Linfen, some are skeptical the money will reach its intended aim.

"If they spend 100 million on clean up, at least 20 or 30 million will get eaten by corruption," said Xu Liqi, a clothing merchant and Linfen native. "That's normal."

And when the money is spent, Xu is not convinced it will really solve the root problem. All he has to do is look around town and see that the city picks up garbage only on the main streets, but not in the back neighborhoods.

"The politicians only care about the surface," said Xu. "They wash their face but don't wash below."

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