Linfen: my visit to the most polluted city in China

This post is the first in a series of three about my homestay and visit to a power plant in Linfen, Shanxi Province.

aerialview

The lovely city of Linfen.

Xiong works as an auditor at one of two 600-megawatt coal-fired power plants in Linfen, Shanxi.  Linfen likes to boast that it has a four-thousand-year-old history:  it used to be known as 尧都, the capital of the ancient state of Yao.  The Emperor Yao was a mythical figure in Chinese history, possibly some benevolent tribal leader, to whom later Chinese emperors used to trace their lineage.  Shop fronts and names advertise the Yao name, and there’s even a temple complex in Linfen honoring the Emperor Yao, most of which looks like it was constructed in the last twenty years. I suppose it is much easier for the city to hide behind its four-thousand-year-old glory than to own up to its latest claim to fame:  it has been known as China’s most polluted city, and possibly the most polluted city in the world, by publications such as TIME magazine.

me

I took the four-hour train ride from Taiyuan to visit Linfen, where Xiong would take me to work for a week.  He gave me a work uniform, a thick blue jacket with the name of the plant stitched onto the breast—“So no one will ask any questions,” he explained—and we embarked on a tour of the plant.  Construction began in 2009, and electric generation began at the end of 2010.  Xiong says that the construction of this plant, along with the other 600MW plant in Linfen, has contributed significantly to the cleaning up of Linfen.  Before, individual households would burn their own coal for heating and directly release the smoke and pollutants into the air.

“Imagine every household emitting all that smoke, sulfur, and nitrogen oxide,” he said.  “There were no controls—the pollution was terrible!  Even though our plant burns coal, and coal is dirty, we have state-of-the-art sulfur and NOx removal technology, and we are regulated by the government.”

He explained to me that the government would come for inspections and prepare reports to evaluate the effectiveness of the pollution technology.  If they didn’t meet government standards, they would be fined.

“It still looks really dirty,” I said skeptically.

“It used to be worse,” Xiong insisted. “It’s gotten a lot better.”

***

car

Xiong covers his car with a plastic sheath to avoid having to wash his car every day from the coal dust.

plant

In spite of what he said, Linfen was still a dirty city.  Even though I came on an uncharacteristically beautiful day—the sun was shining—a layer of smog hovered above the horizon.  My lungs could physically perceive the dust in the air, something that had never happened yet in China, and I found myself clearing my throat frequently.  The next few days were worse—the sun disappeared behind the clouds, and the whole city was cloaked in a grey glow.

I’d told Xiong that I was interested in emissions monitoring, so he took me to his giant office—the size of a reasonable American living room—and logged into the company site.  The live emissions monitor looked like a LabView program.  Xiong wasn’t an expert on emissions, so the two of us tried to decipher the program together.  The program included data on the emission rates of nitrogen oxides (NOx), pollutants that react to form acid rain and smog, before and after treatment.  But the numbers made no sense.  The emission rates prior to treatment were actually higher than the post-treatment numbers.

Xiong called one of the employees from the environmental protection department to explain what was up with the numbers.

“Oh, those numbers haven’t been right for a while,” the guy said.

Xiong and I looked at each other.

“Well, you should fix it,” Xiong said.

“Do you need me for anything else?” the guy asked.

Xiong told the guy he could leave.  After he left, I commented that this seemed like a simple calibration error that could be fixed easily.  But because no one fixed it, the plant now probably had weeks of inaccurate data logs. “You know, if I was in that department, I’d make them fix that monitor,” Xiong told me.  “But I don’t have the power, and we don’t have the resources.”

It was the first in a trend that I’d see in many Chinese workplaces. The facilities would be decked out with the latest technology, but they would be wasted on incompetent and apathetic employees.

Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

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