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Mountains of toxic coal ash threaten Chinese villages

Coal provides 70 percent of China's energy needs. Internationally, there is concern about the CO2 emissions but at home people are worried about how to deal with the toxic coal ash that is polluting the air and water.

Every week, a new coal-fired power station crops up in China

Every week, a new coal-fired power station crops up in China

As the wind sweeps over the pale grey countryside, the dust whirls through the air. The houses and fields are covered with a thin layer of grayish dust. Plants, animals and humans too. Han Shuhong lives in the village of Chifeng in Inner Mongolia and has a small fruit plantation.

"It’s terrible when the wind blows," she says. "You can barely open your eyes so you can’t stay outside – it’s all so filthy and your body fills up with dust."

The dust comes from piles of coal ash just outside the village that are whole meters high. The ash is produced by the local coal-fired power station. In the past eight years, a new power station has cropped up just about every week in China. The coal ash has become China’s largest source of waste.

Coal provides 70 percent of China's energy needs

Coal provides 70 percent of China's energy needs

Yang Ailun from Greenpeace says China produces 370 tons of coal ash every year. "This is more than twice the urban domestic waste produced in China. It's enough to fill one standard swimming pool every two and a half minutes or one Olympic water cube everyday," she explains.

Toxic ash contaminates earth and water

The toxic ash, which contains substances such as lead, cadmium and arsenic, is contaminating the earth, water and the food chain.

In its investigation of 14 coal power stations, Greenpeace China recently found that coal ash was usually not stored or disposed of according to the regulations. It found that many ash piles were located near residential areas and that many stations did not even keep to the required minimum distance of 500 meters.

Environmentalists argue that this does not need to be the case and up to 60 percent of the ash could be reused – to make bricks or paving stones for example. However, Greenpeace found that the recycling rates were very low.

"The coal ash utilization rates have been exaggerated," says Yang Ailun. "The government’s target is 60 percent by the end of 2010. However, in reality Greenpeace estimates that the real rate is probably half of that."

Laws and regulations not implemented strictly enough

Some experts have a different opinion and say that the recycling rates are much higher. The statistics are unclear. What seems clear is that laws and regulations are not always kept to. The local authorities often impose fines but this does not lead to better ash storage and disposal.

Coal dust is extremely toxic as it contains cadmium, lead and other harmful materials

Coal dust is extremely toxic as it contains cadmium, lead and other harmful materials

In the village of Chifeng, Huan Yulan throws a dead calf into a shallow grave. She is worried about the future.

"When we go to fetch water, there is ash dust on the surface. If you boil it, the ash stays at the bottom of the pan. Our cows are constantly having miscarriages because of the water and the grass."

Environmentalists have called on the government to impose stricter regulations for disposing the toxic coal ash.

Author: Ruth Kirchner/act
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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