Cities hit hard by smog

Ma­jor ur­ban ar­eas face re­duced vis­i­bil­ity, in­creased ac­ci­dents over the week­end, Wu Wen­cong re­ports in Tian­jin and Bei­jing.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Contact the writer at wuwen­cong@chi­ cn

China’s most de­vel­oped re­gions were at­tacked by smog over the week­end. A to­tal of 104 cities in 20 prov­inces in and near China’s two largest in­dus­trial clus­ters — the Bei­jingTian­jin-He­bei re­gion and the Yangtze River Delta re­gion — fell vic­tim to heavy smog that re­duced vis­i­bil­ity to less than 10 me­ters in some places, ac­cord­ing to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Min­istry.

The sit­u­a­tion will grad­u­ally im­prove from Sun­day af­ter wind blows away dirty air, the Na­tional Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Cen­ter of China Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Ad­min­is­tra­tion said on Sun­day.

This was the sec­ond time heavy smog has cov­ered so many cities this year. Thick haze shrouded many cities for more than 20 days in Jan­uary, af­fect­ing more than 600 mil­lion peo­ple in 17 prov­inces, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and au­tonomous re­gions.

Air qual­ity is­sues may not be solved soon, ex­perts say.

China is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what de­vel­oped coun­tries ex­pe­ri­enced about 20 to 30 years ago, when smoggy and hazy weather caused by fast ur­ban­iza­tion and an un­rea­son­able ur­ban lay­out fre­quently oc­curred, said Peng Ying­deng, an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment ex­pert from the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion.

“If ur­ban plan­ning does not take the dif­fu­sion of pol­lu­tants into con­sid­er­a­tion, smog will plague China for at least an­other 10 to 20 years,” he told Bei­jing News.

The lat­est wave of smog, which first swept into Shang­hai and Jiangsu prov­ince on Dec 1, has caused at least four car ac­ci­dents due to low vis­i­bil­ity, claim­ing six lives na­tion­wide. The most se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent was in Jiangsu on Dec 4, which in­volved al­most 20 ve­hi­cles and left three dead and many in­jured.

High­ways, wa­ter trans­porta­tion and flights have been sus­pended or lim­ited in the past few days.

PM2.5 lev­els in Shang­hai hit a record on Dec 1: an av­er­age of 582 mi­cro­grams per cubic me­ter for the whole city, with the high­est level ex­ceed­ing 700 in the Pu­tuo district.

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion has a safety guide­line of 25 for PM2.5, par­tic­u­late mat­ter smaller than 2.5 mi­crons that can go deep into the lungs.

Poli­cies have been is­sued in the past few months, in­clud­ing a vow to cut PM2.5 lev­els in the Bei­jing-Tian­jin-He­bei clus­ter by 25 per­cent by 2017 from 2012 lev­els.

A six-month in­spec­tion cam­paign was launched in Oc­to­ber.

Sui Xiaochan, head of the en­vi­ron­men­tal emer­gency and ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion cen­ter at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Min­istry, headed a team to in­spect Tian­jin late last month.

“Stop the car right away and take a photo of that chim­ney,” Sui Xiaochan told the driver, point­ing at a chim­ney some 200 me­ters away that was giv­ing off thick black smoke.

Ten min­utes later, the car stopped out­side the chim­ney, lo­cated in a res­i­den­tial district of Tian­jin, and Sui and her col­leagues soon found them­selves in­side a coal-fired heat­ing sta­tion, built right in the mid­dle of a res­i­den­tial com­mu­nity called Yibaibeili.

Sev­eral coal stock­piles stood in the open space be­tween two res­i­den­tial blocks, where in most Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties, a small gar­den is usu­ally lo­cated. The coal was stacked so close to the build­ings that one could eas­ily have opened a win­dow and picked up a lump.

It was a heav­ily pol­luted day, with PM2.5 read­ings higher than 300 mi­cro­grams per cubic me­ter, mean­ing that the level of fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter smaller than 2.5 mi­crons, fine enough to pen­e­trate the lungs, was high enough to pose a se­ri­ous health risk. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s safe limit is 25.

The coal, a po­ten­tial source of dust pol­lu­tion, lay un­cov­ered and open to the el­e­ments. An el­derly woman walked slowly past the piles. She was car­ry­ing an in­fant, but nei­ther of them wore pro­tec­tive masks.

Sui asked her as­sis­tant to take pho­tos of the stock­piles and of the chim­ney, which was slightly taller than the six-story build­ing it stood be­side. Then she took out her hand­book and wrote down the name of the com­mu­nity and the ad­dress of the heat­ing sta­tion.

Col­lect­ing the ev­i­dence had taken less than five min­utes. We re­turned to the car and drove away be­fore any of the se­cu­rity staff had even no­ticed us.

Emer­gency squad

Sui, a bustling woman in her 50s, is head of the en­vi­ron­men­tal emer­gency and ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion cen­ter at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Min­istry in Bei­jing. The depart­ment is charged with deal­ing with en­vi­ron­men­tal emer­gen­cies and pol­lu­tion in­spec­tions.

The pol­lu­tion sources she chases and the notes she makes will help the min­istry eval­u­ate the lo­cal govern­ment’s per­for­mance in the con­trol of toxic emis­sions from a wide range of air­borne pol­lu­tion sources. Sui’s work has been bol­stered by the new poli­cies is­sued in Septem­ber, aimed at “bring­ing a vis­i­ble change” to air qual­ity na­tion­wide by 2017.

The min­istry’s in­spec­tion cam­paign, which runs from Oc­to­ber to March, tar­gets sources of air­borne pol­lu­tion and has been timed to co­in­cide with the Chi­nese win­ter, when ex­ten­sive use of coal-fired heat­ing causes lev­els of haze and smog to climb steeply.

The in­spec­tion is mainly fo­cused on the Bei­jing-Tian­jinHe­bei clus­ter, one of China’s most- pol­luted ar­eas. Cities within the clus­ter usu­ally oc­cupy six or seven places on the list of the “10 most pol­luted cities of the month” re­leased by the min­istry ev­ery four weeks.

In late Septem­ber, high­rank­ing of­fi­cials from mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, prov­inces sit­u­ated in and around the clus­ter, plus the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­tonomous re­gion, signed pledges with the cen­tral govern­ment, vow­ing to re­duce their com­bined an­nual con­sump­tion of coal by 83 mil­lion met­ric tons by the end of 2017. They also pledged to crack down harder on vi­o­la­tions of the en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions.

A month af­ter the pol­icy was an­nounced, six in­spec­tion teams, in­clud­ing Sui’s, were sent to 12 cities within the clus­ter to check if lo­cal of­fi­cials are hon­or­ing their prom­ises and mak­ing ev­ery effort to curb air pol­lu­tion.

Be­fore ar­riv­ing in Tian­jin, the team had spent a week check­ing on com­pa­nies emit­ting air­borne pol­lu­tants in Qin­huang­dao, He­bei prov­ince.

The team’s task for November was to run through all the dis­tricts and coun­ties in the two cities and check whether key coal-burn­ers have mod­i­fied and up­graded their pro­duc­tion lines with desul­fu­r­iza­tion, den­i­tri­fi­ca­tion and dust-re­moval tech­nol­ogy, and whether the changes are hav­ing the de­sired ef­fect. The task also in­cluded check­ing dust­pre­ven­tion mea­sures in ar­eas where raw ma­te­ri­als such as coal and sand are stock­piled, and as­sess­ing the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties’ moves to elim­i­nate il­le­gal small-scale pol­luters.

The checks will be re­peated ev­ery month. “That means we have to spend half a month work­ing in the field, and the other half writ­ing sum­maries and pre­par­ing for our next field trip,” said Sui’s col­league, Liu Qing.

The teams have to choose their tar­gets care­fully be­cause in­spec­tion time is lim­ited. “We have our own cri­te­ria for choos­ing which busi­nesses to in­spect,” said Sui. “Those with poor record his­tor­i­cally, or who have ap­peared on a list of pub­lic tip-offs made via our hot­line, or those re­quir­ing con­trol at the na­tional level, are very likely to at­tract our at­ten­tion.”

To en­sure the eval­u­a­tions are im­par­tial and ob­jec­tive, the five-per­son in­spec­tion teams are aug­mented by an en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cial from a lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal or pro­vin­cial govern­ment un­re­lated to the area.

Sui and her six-per­son crew, which split in two groups to con­duct in­spec­tions, ex­am­ined around 50 pol­lu­tion sources in Tian­jin dur­ing their six­day tour of duty. Thirty-three sources were found to be vi­o­lat­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal laws and reg­u­la­tions, 26 of which were dis­cov­ered by se­cret checks.

Color of the smoke

The in­spec­tion process is two-pronged: Se­cret checks are con­ducted, but the fac­to­ries are also sub­ject to rig­or­ous in­spec­tions at­tended by lo­cal of­fi­cials. Fac­tory chiefs are ques­tioned and the team con­ducts spot checks of the data col­lated daily through on­line emis­sions’ mon­i­tor­ing.

Se­cret checks are usu­ally made dur­ing the first two days of the in­spec­tion team’s visit. The lo­cal au­thor­i­ties are not no­ti­fied in ad­vance. The team drives to all parts of the city, look­ing for chim­neys send­ing out odd-col­ored smoke. Pho­tos are taken and the lo­ca­tions are logged in preparation for an of­fi­cial, open in­spec­tion, as was the case for the heat­ing sta­tion with the ex­ces­sively smoky chim­ney in Yibaibeili.

“Yel­low fumes usu­ally in­di­cate a high level of sul­fur, blue means fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter, and black sug­gests large par­ti­cles. Red fumes co­in­cide with a high con­cen­tra­tion of pow­dered iron,” ex­plained Sui, shar­ing a few tips on how to iden­tify the com­po­si­tion of emis­sions from coal-burn­ing. “Usu­ally, white smoke mainly con­sists of wa­ter va­por, which is harm­less.”

There are times when the black smoke recorded dur­ing a se­cret check will in­ex­pli­ca­bly change color on the day of an of­fi­cial in­spec­tion, turn­ing white overnight, as hap­pened at the heat­ing sta­tion in Yibaibeili.

In such cases, com­pany of­fi­cials are con­fronted with pho­tos of the black smoke and re­quired to ex­plain ex­actly how and why the smoke changed color so quickly. Even if the ex­pla­na­tion is ac­cepted, it does not al­ways guar­an­tee that they’ll pass the in­spec­tion.

“There was an abrupt drop in tem­per­a­ture sev­eral days ago, so we started an­other boiler in re­sponse. It’s nor­mal for the con­cen­tra­tion of emis­sions from newly fired boil­ers to be un­sta­ble ini­tially,” ar­gued Liu Guom­ing, the heat­ing sta­tion chief.

It seemed a rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tion, so Sui didn’t pur­sue the topic fur­ther. She did, how­ever, or­der Liu to build a stor­age shed for the coal to pre­vent dust pol­lu­tion.

“We had a shed un­til last year,” Liu replied. “But the res­i­dents com­plained and said it blocked out the sun­light, so we had to dis­man­tle it.”

As the team left the heat­ing sta­tion, Sui low­ered her voice and re­minded her as­sis­tant to ob­tain a copy of the most re­cent emis­sions re­port on the sta­tion, even though it had not yet been of­fi­cially re­leased.

She re­ceived the re­port the fol­low­ing evening. It showed that the level of dust dis­charged by the heat­ing sta­tion was al­most six times the na­tional stan­dard, and the level of sul­fur diox­ide was 12 times higher.

The re­port was ac­com­pa­nied by news that the district-level en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion bu­reau, un­der whose ju­ris­dic­tion the sta­tion falls, had im­posed a fine of 100,000 yuan ($16,450) be­cause of the high con­cen­tra­tion of pol­lu­tants in its emis­sions.

“The lo­cal of­fi­cials acted swiftly,” said Sui. “The fine was pretty big for a heat­ing sta­tion, and that shows how se­ri­ous we are about clean­ing up the air.”


Morn­ing ex­er­cis­ers brave heavy smog in Fuyang, An­hui prov­ince, on Sun­day. Nearly half of the coun­try is choked in some of the worst air this year.


Chim­neys at the Da­gang Power Plant in Tian­jin, which mainly emit wa­ter va­por.

A work­shop at the Zhasany­oufa Iron and Steel Com­plex in Tian­jin.

The smok­ing chim­ney at the Yibaibeili com­mu­nity is one of many pol­lu­tion sources in Tian­jin.

Coal stock­piled in an open space in the Yibaibeili com­mu­nity in Tian­jin.

Sui Xiaochan (right) and her in­spec­tion team at work at the Tian­jin branch of the oil com­pany Sinopec.

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