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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Turnaround in Shanxi

Air Date: Week of

Shanxi Province was China's first hope for industrialization decades ago. Now, China hopes it will provide a model for industrial cleanup. Elise Potaka reports from Shanxi.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: It’s the changing of the work shift at China’s giant coal mine in Shanxi Province. Miners emerge from deep underground, their faces and clothes black with coal dust. The province contains a third of China’s coal reserves. Back in the 1980s, Shanxi became the nation’s energy powerhouse - driving China’s phenomenal growth but polluting the region’s air, water, and soil and poisoning the lungs of miners and residents.

Now the local government is trying hard to get Shanxi off the country's environmental blacklist. From Shanxi Province, Elise Potaka reports.


POTAKA: To the melody of happy birthday, a truck winds its way through the streets of Linfen, spraying water on the road to settle the dust and pollutants.

It's a small act which highlights the city's problems.

For three years running, the nation's environment authority deemed Linfen, in the south of Shanxi Province, China's most polluted city.

It's also one of the ten worst polluted cities in the world, according to the Blacksmith Institute.


POTAKA: From his modest house on the edge of town, Wang Zhang points down the lane.

WANG: The air pollution here is very bad. In the afternoon, even people standing just over there, you can't see them clearly.

POTAKA: Wang's neighbor,Yang Chun Xiang, chimes in. She's in her 70's and says the air is not clear like it used to be when she was a child.

YANG: The air pollution is bad and there are more and more people getting sick. Health is not very good, there's no chance for people here to be fit and well.

POTAKA: And while Linfen might be the worst, it's certainly not the only polluted city in Shanxi.

POTAKA: The province's capital, Taiyuan, is covered in a brown layer of smog. The land here is a patchwork of farmland, coal and bauxite mines, power stations, chemical factories and metal foundries.


POTAKA: The Fen River is the heart of Taiyuan, running right through the center. On a bridge crossing the river, signs are posted saying "no fishing." Three locals dangle fishing lines into the water below. Just not far away dead fish drift, their white bellies turned skywards.


POTAKA: The fishermen say they aren't worried about pollution, and that the fish are okay to eat. But Cao Haixia, a researcher from the Shanxi Energy Economic Research Institute says the Fen River is far from healthy.

CAO: The Fen River is severely polluted. In the 40s and 50s, the river's water level was really high and boats could travel up and down it. Now, many of its tributaries have dried up. In Shanxi, 70% of waterways are polluted, 50% of these are seriously polluted and can't be used.

POTAKA: And Cao also backs up the assertions of the people in Linfen who say air quality has deteriorated there.

CAO: Atmospheric pollution is very serious and respiratory illnesses in Shanxi are common. Cancer rates amongst residents are also high.

POTAKA: But with Linfen's pollution drawing international attention to Shanxi, the Chinese central government and local authorities have rolled into action.

They've installed scrubbers on coal-fired power plants, closed mines and older factories, and now they’re trying out a new tax program with the coal industry. Cao Haixia explains.

CAO: Every company, for every ton of coal they sell, for example, has to put aside about $1.50 US. This money is then used for reducing pollution, and protecting the environment.


POTAKA: And in some big cities, including Linfen, some locals say the environment is improving. These workers building a road in Linfen say many of the worst factories have closed, and the air is much better than two or three years ago. Taxi driver Xiao Hui sees the same thing. At least now he says he can see the sun.

XIAO: Before, we'd get up in the morning, but we couldn't see the sun. It was always dusty. Now lots of factories have been shutdown, this year and last year.

POTAKA: The Ministry for the Environment this year announced that Shanxi's sulphur dioxide emissions decreased more than 6% between 2006 and 2007. The discharge of organic pollutants also decreased.

The Shanxi provincial government is also offering direct rewards to city leaders. If they manage to get off the country's list of top five most polluted cities, they will receive a $146, 000 dollar, reward. They hope this will discourage leaders from being tempted to take bribes.


POTAKA: But with polluting mines and factories closing, some locals are worried about jobs. Shanxi's counties rely on coal to support their economies. Mining and industry money has, in recent decades, lifted the living standards of many residents.

Now some say it's hard to find work. Mrs. Zhang sells snacks on the street to earn money.

ZHANG: I'm 72 years old and I have five children. They haven't got work, there's nothing we can do. Even the coal mines don't want people now. Lots of people here have no work.


POTAKA: In areas outside the cities, life can be even tougher.


POTAKA: This villager says neither she nor her husband have work. And she says the air here is still just as polluted as before. No one cares about life in the villages, she says.

The situation here is symbolic of China's larger struggle to lift people out of poverty whilst protecting the environment. Change is happening, but the government admits that the benefits aren't always evenly distributed.

But if a place with as many challenges as Shanxi can manage to successfully transform its environment and economy, it could act as a blueprint for the rest of the country.

For Living on Earth, I’m Elise Potaka in Shanxi.



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