China air pollution

Chinese city official apologises for sorry state of air quality caused by ‘Great Smog of Linfen’

Levels of poisonous sulphur dioxide in city in Shanxi province drastically exceeded acceptable standards again on Monday

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 12:10am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 12:52am

The “Great Smog of Linfen” returned this week, with the city’s deputy mayor finally making a public apology to residents.

But experts and critics remained sceptical of the city government’s claim that household coal burning was the main cause of the poor air quality.

A yellow alert – the third-highest in the four-tier smog warning system – was issued on Monday in Linfen, Shanxi province, after sulphur dioxide levels drastically exceeded acceptable standards.

There were 1,014 micrograms per cubic metre of sulphur dioxide in the air on Monday night, reported.

The World Health Organisation recommends that people avoid exposure to more than 500mcg per cubic metre of the pollutant for more than 10 minutes, or 20mcg over 24 hours.

The latest sulphur dioxide pall comes a week after readings hit a peak of 1,303mcg.

Like PM2.5 – the small smog particles most hazardous to human health – sulphur dioxide can worsen chronic respiratory diseases and poison lungs.

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Without specifying the main pollutants, the city’s environmental protection agency said the poor air quality was caused by regional smog and weather conditions. It advised reducing outdoor activities and cutting emissions from polluting firms.

In a statement on Tuesday, the agency quoted deputy mayor Yan Jianguo as saying late Monday that he was “deeply sorry” for the prolonged severe air pollution.

Despite doubts raised in mainland media, Yan stood by the government’s claim that the main cause of the pollution was coal burning by households.

On Sunday, city environmental official Zhang Wenqing said more than 70 per cent of the sulphur dioxide emissions from burning coal came from individuals using the fuel for heating, news website reported.

Industrial activities also contributed to the high level of the pollutant, although the coal-fired power, coking and iron and steel plants in the area had already taken steps to cut emissions.

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But Dong Liansai, from Greenpeace East Asia, said the sulphur dioxide was high even when people did not use heating. Greenpeace analysis showed that between April and October 2016, when home heating was unlikely to be used, Linfen was still one of the country’s biggest sulphur dioxide hot spots, he said. Industrial emissions were key, Dong said.

Li Ting, a meteorology researcher at China Academy of Sciences, criticised the local environmental protection agency in a WeChat post for not releasing the results of an investigation into sources of pollutants, even though the provincial authority had urged Linfen to investigate in January 2014.

Zhang responded that it had carried out the related investigation in 2013, but it was more focused on PM2.5, and a more comprehensive investigation was ongoing.

Ma Jun, from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said it was hard to confirm pollutant sources because Linfen had not given detailed information on contaminants in recent years, including real-time exhaust emissions and business violation records.