China’s coal pollutes the U.S.
China’s coal pollutes the U.S.
Michael Casey, Associated Press
November 4, 2007
TAIYUAN, China — It takes five to 10 days for the pollution from China’s coal-fired plants to make its way to the United States, like a slow-moving storm.
It shows up as mercury in the bass and trout caught in Oregon’s Willamette River. It increases cloud cover and raises ozone levels. And along the way, it contributes to acid rain in Japan and South Korea and health problems everywhere from Taiyuan to the United States.
This is the dark side of the world’s growing use of coal.
Cheap and abundant, coal has become the fuel of choice in much of the world, powering economic booms in China and India that have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Worldwide demand is projected to rise by about 60% through 2030 to 6.9 billion tons a year, most of it going to electrical power plants.
But the growth of coal-burning is also contributing to global warming, and is linked to environmental and health issues ranging from acid rain to asthma. Air pollution kills more than 2 million people prematurely, according to the World Health Organization.
“Hands down, coal is by far the dirtiest pollutant,” said Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington who has detected pollutants from Asia at monitoring sites on Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Cheeka Peak in Washington state. “It is a pretty bad fuel on all scores.”
To understand the conflict over coal, look at Taiyuan and the surrounding Shanxi Province, the country’s top coal-producing region — and one of its most polluted.
LESHAN, China — A few years back, the Leshan Giant Buddha started to weep.
Or so some locals imagined when black streaks appeared on the rose-colored cheeks of the towering 7th-century figure, hewn from sandstone cliffs in the forests of southern China. They worried they had angered the religious icon.
The culprit, it turned out, was the region’s growing number of coal-fired power plants. Their smokestacks spew toxic gases into the air, which return to earth as acid rain. Over time, the Buddha’s nose turned black and curls of hair began to fall from its head.
“If this continues, the Buddha will lose its nose and even its ears,” said Li Xiao Dong, a researcher who has studied the impact of air pollution in Sichuan Province, the statue’s home. “It will become just a piece of rock.”
China’s ancient buildings, tombs and stone carvings have weathered storms, invading armies and thieves. Now, they face a new threat, a by-product of the rapid economic development that has lifted so many Chinese out of poverty.
More than 80% of China’s 33 U.N.-designated World Heritage sites, including the Leshan Buddha, have been damaged by air pollution and acid rain, mostly from the burning of coal, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
“The level of pollution that China is creating will be devastating to these monuments,” said Melinda Herrold-Menzies, a professor of environmental studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.
Chinese officials are starting to acknowledge the downside of unbridled development. Qiu Baoxing, the vice minister of construction, blamed the devastation of historic sites on “senseless actions” by local officials in pursuit of modernization, the government-run China Daily newspaper reported in June.
“They are totally unaware of the value of cultural heritage,” he said, likening the destruction to that of cultural relics during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.
The 19-story-high Leshan Buddha, with a head that appears lost in the trees, stares down on the confluence of three rivers. Authorities gave it a multimillion-dollar facelift in 2001. Six years later, the seated figure is stained black again, mostly because of acid rain, Li said.
About 750 miles to the north, clouds of black dust coming off coal trucks have damaged the Yungang Grottoes, a World Heritage site in the heart of China’s coal belt.
Herrold-Menzies expressed surprise that caves with such historical and archaeological importance would lie so close to “coal mines and an industrial nightmare of a city.”
The 250 caves hold more than 50,000 statues of Buddha dating to the 5th century, their heights ranging from less than an inch to 56 feet.
Authorities relocated nearby factories and rerouted truck traffic in 1998. But much of the coal dust has been left on the statues, for fear that the sandstone might not survive a cleaning.
As visitors weave in and out of the caves, the damaged statues are easy to pick out. Their red, blue and yellow paint is faded, and they look as if they are wearing a black trench coat or skirt.
“As you can see, the statues are dirty and it’s from coal of course,” said Ren Yun Xia, a 21-year-old student from nearby Linfen. “It upsets me. But the whole world is developing and you can’t avoid this kind of pollution.”
— The Associated Press
Almost overnight, coal has turned poor farmers in this city of 3 million people into Mercedes-driving millionaires, known derisively as “baofahu” or the quick rich. Flashy hotels display chunks of coal in the lobby, and sprawling malls advertise designer goods from Versace and Karl Lagerfeld. Real estate prices have doubled, residents say, and construction cranes fill the skyline.
A museum in Taiyuan celebrates all things coal. Amid photos of smiling miners, coal is presented as the foundation of the country’s economic development, credited with making possible everything from the railroad to skin care products.
“Today, coal has penetrated into every aspect of people’s lives,” the museum says in one of many cheery pronouncements. “We can’t live comfortably without coal.”
Yet the cornstalks lining a highway outside the city 254 miles southwest of Beijing are covered in soot. The same soot settles on vegetables sold at the roadside, and the thick, acrid smoke blots out the morning sun. At its worst, the haze forces highway closures and flight delays.
With pressure to clean up major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, particularly in the run-up to next year’s Beijing Olympics, the central government is turning increasingly to provinces such as Shanxi to meet the country’s power demands.
“They look at polluted places like Taiyuan and say it’s so polluted there so it doesn’t matter if they have another five power plants,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior fellow at Resources For the Future, an American think tank that found links between air pollution and rising hospital admissions in Taiyuan.
“I visited these power plants and there is no concept of pollution control,” he said. “They sort of had a laugh and asked, ‘Why would you expect us to install pollution control equipment?”‘
China is home to 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, according to a World Bank report.
Health costs related to air pollution total $68 billion a year, nearly 4% of the country’s economic output, the report said. And acid rain has contaminated a third of the country, Sheng Huaren, a senior Chinese parliamentary official, said last year. It is said to destroy some $4 billion worth of crops every year.
“What we are facing in China is enormous economic growth, and … China is paying a price for it,” said Henk Bekedam, the country representative for the World Health Organization. “Their growth is not sustainable from an environmental perspective. The good news is that they realize it. The bad news is they’re dependent on coal as an energy source.”
But the costs go far beyond China. The soot from power plants boosts global warming because coal emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. And researchers from Texas A&M University found that air pollution from China and India has increased in cloud cover and major Pacific Ocean storms by 20% to 50% over the past 20 years.
“We know dust from factories in China, India, Mexico and Africa does not simply disappear; the wind brings it here,” said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Bill Kovacs.
Kovacs said overseas dust is adding to the number of counties that do not qualify for federal transportation funds because they are out of compliance with ozone standards. More than 100 counties do not meet the limit of 84 parts per billion. China alone contributes 3 to 5 parts per billion, estimates Daniel J. Jacob, professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard University.
Mercury, a byproduct of some coal-mining, is another major concern. The potent toxin falls into waterways and shows up in fish. Asia’s contribution to U.S. mercury levels has shot up over the past 20 years. Jacob estimated half of the mercury in the United States comes from overseas, especially China.
“It’s a global problem and right now China is a source on the rise,” he said. “If we want to bring down mercury levels in fish, then we have to go after emissions in East Asia.”
A fifth of the mercury in the Willamette River came from China and other foreign sources, said Bruce K. Hope of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Pregnant or nursing women who eat the fish put their babies at risk of neurological damage.
“It’s frustrating to realize that part of your problem is someone else’s behavior and you can’t really go to them and say, ‘Can you do something different?”‘ Hope said.
China has closed some polluting factories and says it will retire 50 gigawatts of inefficient power plants, or 8% of the total power grid, by 2010, according to the Pew Center for Global Climate Change. The government has also mandated that solar, wind, hydroelectric and other forms of renewable energy provide 10% of the nation’s power by 2010, and ordered key industries to reduce energy consumption by 20%.
President Hu Jintao, in a speech to a key party congress last month, promised a cleanup. But China has fallen short of its national targets for using energy more efficiently, and coal remains a major energy source.
“Everyone knows coal is dirty, but there is no way that China can get rid of coal,” the World Bank’s Zhao Jianping said in Beijing. “It must rely on it for years to come, until humans can find a new magic solution.”
Robert N. Schock, the director of studies for the World Energy Council, agreed that coal, cheap and abundant, will remain a crucial source of energy for many years and be crucial to improving living standards in developing countries.
“Twenty-five percent of the world’s electric power is now generated by coal, and those plants are not likely to disappear overnight,” Schock said.
In Shanxi province, authorities have pledged to close 900 coal mines and dozens of makeshift factories that process coal for the steel industry, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The Asian Development Bank is providing more than $200 million in loans to improve air quality in the province, through programs to shift to cleaner-burning natural gas for household heating and a demonstration project to capture methane, a greenhouse gas released in coal mining.
Taiyuan, dubbed the world’s most polluted city in the 1990s, is no longer thought to be the worst, thanks to various efforts including phasing out coal-burning boilers. But the level of pollutants in the air remains five to 10 times higher than levels in New York or London. Residents say they see blue skies fewer than 120 days a year.
Australians Paul and Helen Douglas, who work for Evergreen in Taiyuan, an American social service agency, said their 21-month-old daughter Rose has been found in tests to have elevated lead levels. She has developed a chronic cough, Paul Douglas said, and the family will likely return to Australia before their contract ends if their daughter’s toxin levels rise further.
“People say we are irresponsible and that we are making decisions that are injuring our children,” he said of coming under fire from relatives and church members for staying in Taiyuan.
Taiyuan residents, though, shrug wearily when the talk turns to pollution, fearful that speaking out could get them in trouble. But when pressed, the complaints tumble forth and expose a community held hostage by the soot.
Residents seal their windows to keep out the dirty air. Parents are warned not to let their toddlers play outside, for fear of being covered in coal dust. Fruits and vegetables must be washed in detergent.
“I’m worried about my children,” said a woman who lives in the shadow of a power plant and fertilizer factory. She would only give her surname, Zhang. “We worry about everything. If you get sick seriously, you will die.”
Many complain of chronic sore throats, bronchitis, lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. One study, by researchers at Norway’s Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, found Taiyuan’s pollution increased death rates by 15% and chronic respiratory ailments by 40 to 50%.
“I feel terrible and I’m coughing all the time,” said William Li, a retired engineer from Taiyuan. His father died of lung cancer and his son has tracheitis, an upper respiratory condition. “The coal, it produces electric power that we send to other provinces. But we are left with the pollution.”
U.S. firms driving pollution in China
(8/22/2007) U.S. firms are helping drive environmental degradation in China, putting the health of millions of Chinese at risk, reports The Wall Street Journal. The paper says that by demanding ever lower products for goods, manufacturers are forced to reduced environmental safeguards in order to compete.
China to miss pollution goals for 2007
(8/22/2007) China has managed to cut emissions of sulphur dioxide, an acid-rain causing pollutant, during the first half of 2007 but is likely to miss reduction targets for the year, reports the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).