While Linfen govt takes action against SO2, some question if their efforts are effective

By Liu Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/7 19:08:39

SO2 density in Linfen has peaked at 65 times higher than the safe limit the WHO recommends

The Linfen government has used subsidies to promote "clean coal" to replace the ordinary coal that local residents burn for heating in winter

The Shanxi provincial and Linfen city governments have issued contradictory statements on the source of SO2

Smog blankets the city of Linfen, Shanxi Province. Photo: CFP

Smog blankets the city of Linfen, Shanxi Province. Photo: CFP

Most of the conversations I had with relatives and friends from my hometown during the Spring Festival holidays were oddly similar - they all asked me "have you written any articles about Linfen?"

Yes, as a journalist, I have read reports saying that in January the density of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in Linfen, my hometown in Shanxi Province, reached 1,303 micrograms per cubic meter, a level 21 times higher than the national standard and 65 times higher than the WHO's recommended density limit, and comparable to London's infamous Great Smog of 1952.

But when I asked my friends and relatives about what precautions they take during periods of hazardous air pollution, bitter smiles broke across most of their faces, they shook their heads and said, "There is nothing we can do, no one can live without breathing."

Breathing in excessive amounts of SO2 burns the eyes and the skin, causes tracheitis, may result in the loss of taste and smell, and can even lead to premature death.

The remarks of my friends and relatives are not simply a pessimistic pose, but are reflected in their actions and in those of their neighbors. A friend showed me some pictures and videos he took in Linfen when dense smog blanketed the city, which showed people walking around without protective masks and seniors happily dancing in a public plaza.

But not everyone is indifferent to the heavy air pollution. My sister, who gave birth to her second child this winter, bought an air purifier that cost more than 2,000 yuan ($291) - almost half of the monthly salary she earns as a cashier in a local college.

A shop assistant in a local shopping mall told me that air purifiers, especially those made overseas, are hot products this year, and they cost over 2,500 yuan on average. According to statistics released by job hunting website job592.com, the average monthly salary in Linfen in 2016 was around 3,400 yuan.

Linfen stands out on a map of SO2 emissions with hazardous levels of the pollutant on January 13.

Linfen stands out on a map of SO2 emissions with hazardous levels of the pollutant on January 13.

Yesterday once more

It seemed to me that local residents were either too busy protecting themselves from the hazardous air pollution, or too busy ignoring it, to think about its causes. But that might because they are so familiar with its causes that they no longer consider them.

Linfen was listed as one of the top three most polluted cities in China from 2003 to 2005. Located in a coal-rich region, the price of the fossil fuel was always rock bottom. The smog and chimneys belching smoke formed the background to my childhood and teenage years.

According to statements published on the website of the Shanxi provincial Department of Environmental Protection, the Linfen government has taken measures to improve the environment since 2006, including heightening emission standards, requiring steel and coking enterprises to improve their operations and shutting down more than 100 small coking firms.

The efforts were given official recognition when Linfen was selected as a model city for environmental improvement by the provincial government in 2012. But the dense smog that once again sat on the city in the winter of 2016 has returned the city's air pollution problem to the limelight.

The causes of the dense smog, and particularly the density of SO2, have not changed much in the last decade. Facing huge pressure from the public, Linfen's environmental protection bureau told us in January what we all knew already, that the excessive emissions are mainly caused by domestic and industrial coal burning, according to news portal thepaper.cn.

The city's deputy mayor made a public apology for the smog on January 11 and said they were willing to accept all the criticism and would take actions.


Battle with SO2

Actually the Linfen government had taken measures to deal with the SO2 problem before it was recently exposed by the media and it ramped up efforts after the whole nation began to keep a watchful eye on the city, though the effectiveness of these measures has been questioned.

I used to live in a residential community in the city's old quarter where there was no collective heating system and most residents used their own coal burners to warm their homes in the winter. Some of my neighbors told me during Spring Festival that the government asked them to buy "clean coal" in November and December for 275 yuan per ton, compared with the ordinary coal people used to burn which costs about 340 yuan per ton.

The government claimed that the clean coal is actually much more expensive than the ordinary coal. It said it would subsidize residents by paying 1,000 yuan for each ton of the clean coal to coal producers.

"The government began to send people to collect the ordinary coal in January and give us the clean coal," a neighbor surnamed Kang told me.

The trucks transferred the coal from the old residential communities to a coal company in the west side of the city.

"Almost all the employees of governmental institutions were asked to take part in the 'battle against coal.' They inspected our burners and checked the place where we store our coal one by one and I saw officials who often appear on local television jumping into the coal pile to check the coal," said Kang.

Some villagers living on the outskirts told me that they were required to use clean coal and sign a "commitment letter" which said they would only use clean energy sources including clean coal, natural gas and electric energy.

"We don't know why it is called clean coal, it contains too much soil and is hard to burn. The smell is unbearable when it burns," a villager from Zhao village told me.

The "battle against coal" has incurred complaints from the residents and their complaints were validated after the Department of Environmental Protection of Shanxi released an announcement explaining the reasons for Linfen's hazardous levels of SO2 on January 15.

The announcement said that Linfen's total coal consumption went from 30 million tons in 2013 to 36.6 million tons in 2016 and nearly 92 percent of it was used by industrial firms for coking and generating electricity.

However, the Environmental Protection Bureau of Linfen said on January 9 that 70 percent of the SO2 is generated by coal used in domestic heating. Billboards that read "It is every citizen's responsibility to fight against the air pollution" were also erected in the city.

The contradictory statements about the SO2 source from the two authorities have aroused questions not only from the media but also from some environmental experts.

Some reports questioned the way the government identified the source of the SO2, and Chai Fahe, an environmental expert from Beijing was quoted by The Beijing News as saying the city's statistical method was questionable.

"What's the point of putting so much effort into persuading residents to use clean coal when the emission of one enterprise can affect the environment more severely than hundreds of households?" a local government employee who requested anonymity, asked me.

Many citizens who are asking the same question may have put it to the back of their minds when cold front blew away the choking smog just before the Spring Festival Eve. Clean air and blue skies reemerged during the holidays and I heard several passersby pointing out the fine weather when I walked on the streets.

Citizens now seem to realize how precious the clean air is and many friends and relatives told me that they have given up the tradition of lighting fireworks during the holidays.

"We suffered from the air pollution and have no idea how to end it. But I still want my daughter to live under the blue sky and breathe clean air," said a friend.

Newspaper headline: Holiday in smog city

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