[enviro-vlc] China’s Incinerators Loom as a Global Hazard
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Thu Aug 13 06:10:13 EST 2009
August 12, 2009
China’s Incinerators Loom as a Global Hazard
By KEITH BRADSHER
SHENZHEN, China — In this sprawling metropolis in southeastern China stand two
hulking brown buildings erected by a private company, the Longgang trash
incinerators. They can be smelled a mile away and pour out so much dark smoke
and hazardous chemicals that hundreds of local residents recently staged an
all-day sit-in, demanding that the incinerators be cleaner and that a planned
third incinerator not be built nearby.
After surpassing the United States as the world’s largest producer of household
garbage, China has embarked on a vast program to build incinerators as landfills
run out of space. But these incinerators have become a growing source of toxic
emissions, from dioxin to mercury, that can damage the body’s nervous system.
And these pollutants, particularly long-lasting substances like dioxin and
mercury, are dangerous not only in China, a growing body of atmospheric research
based on satellite observations suggests. They float on air currents across the
Pacific to American shores.
Chinese incinerators can be better. At the other end of Shenzhen from Longgang,
no smoke is visible from the towering smokestack of the Baoan incinerator, built
by a company owned by the municipal government. Government tests show that it
emits virtually no dioxin and other pollutants.
But the Baoan incinerator cost 10 times as much as the Longgang incinerators,
per ton of trash-burning capacity.
The difference between the Baoan and Longgang incinerators lies at the center of
a growing controversy in China. Incinerators are being built to wildly different
standards across the country and even across cities like Shenzhen. For years
Chinese government regulators have discussed the need to impose tighter limits
on emissions. But they have done nothing because of a bureaucratic turf war, a
Chinese government official and Chinese incineration experts said.
The Chinese government is struggling to cope with the rapidly rising mountains
of trash generated as the world’s most populated country has raced from poverty
to rampant consumerism. Beijing officials warned in June that all of the city’s
landfills would run out of space within five years.
The governments of several cities with especially affluent, well-educated
citizens, including Beijing and Shanghai, are setting pollution standards as
strict as Europe’s. Despite those standards, protests against planned
incinerators broke out this spring in Beijing and Shanghai as well as Shenzhen.
Increasingly outspoken residents in big cities are deeply distrustful that
incinerators will be built and operated to international standards. “It’s hard
to say whether this standard will be reached — maybe the incinerator is designed
to reach this benchmark, but how do we know it will be properly operated?” said
Zhao Yong, a computer server engineer who has become a neighborhood activist in
Beijing against plans for an incinerator there.
Yet far dirtier incinerators continue to be built in inland cities where
residents have shown little awareness of pollution.
Studies at the University of Washington and the Argonne National Laboratory in
Argonne, Ill., have estimated that a sixth of the mercury now falling on North
American lakes comes from Asia, particularly China, mainly from coal-fired
plants and smelters but also from incinerators. Pollution from incinerators also
tends to be high in toxic metals like cadmium.
Incinerators play the most important role in emissions of dioxin. Little
research has been done on dioxin crossing the Pacific. But analyses of similar
chemicals have shown that they can travel very long distances.
A 2005 report from the World Bank warned that if China built incinerators
rapidly and did not limit their emissions, worldwide atmospheric levels of
dioxin could double. China has since slowed its construction of incinerators and
limited their emissions somewhat, but the World Bank has yet to do a follow-up
Airborne dioxin is not the only problem from incinerators. The ash left over
after combustion is laced with dioxin and other pollutants. Zhong Rigang, the
chief engineer at the Baoan incinerator here, said that his operation sent its
ash to a special landfill designed to cope with toxic waste. But an academic
paper last year by Nie Yongfeng, a Tsinghua University professor and government
adviser who sees a need for more incinerators, said that most municipal
landfills for toxic waste lacked room for the ash, so the ash was dumped.
Trash incinerators have two advantages that have prompted Japan and much of
Europe to embrace them: they occupy much less real estate than landfills, and
the heat from burning trash can be used to generate electricity. The Baoan
incinerator generates enough power to light 40,000 households.
And landfills have their own environmental hazards. Decay in landfills also
releases large quantities of methane, a powerful global warming gas, said Robert
McIlvaine, president of McIlvaine Company, an energy consulting firm that
calculates the relative costs of addressing disparate environmental hazards.
Methane from landfills is a far bigger problem in China than toxic pollutants
from incinerators, particularly modern incinerators like those in Baoan, he said.
China’s national regulations still allow incinerators to emit 10 times as much
dioxin as incinerators in the European Union; American standards are similar to
those in Europe. Tightening of China’s national standards has been stuck for
three years in a bureaucratic war between the environment ministry and the main
economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, said a
Beijing official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to
discuss the subject publicly.
The agencies agree that tighter standards on dioxin emissions are needed. They
disagree on whether the environment ministry should have the power to stop
incinerator projects that do not meet tighter standards, the official said,
adding that the planning agency wants to retain the power to decide which
projects go ahead.
Yan Jianhua, the director of the solid waste treatment expert group in Zhejiang
province, a center of incinerator equipment manufacturing in China, defended the
industry’s record on dioxin, saying that households that burn their trash
outdoors emit far more dioxin.
“Open burning is a bigger problem according to our research,” Professor Yan
said, adding that what China really needs is better trash collection so that
garbage can be disposed of more reliably.
Critics and admirers of incinerators alike call for more recycling and reduced
use of packaging as ways to reduce the daily volume of municipal garbage. Even
when not recycled, sorted trash is easier for incinerators to burn cleanly,
because the temperature in the furnace can be adjusted more precisely to
minimize the formation of dioxin.
Yet the Chinese public has shown little enthusiasm for recycling. As Mr. Zhong,
the engineer at the Baoan incinerator, put it, “No one really cares.”
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