Thursday, June 09, 2005

China, which suffers from enormous pollution problems, and which is belatedly trying to solve them, is finding it's efforts undermined by the development of an illegal market in coal.

Although the coal industry is mostly controlled by large state-owned companies, hundreds of illegal mines run by fly-by-night operators seeking to cash in on the ''coal rush" have sprung up in the area, according to local officials and residents. They say that the quick- and dirty-mining tactics in these illegal mines have exacted a heavy human and environmental toll.

The results have been deadly in areas where the illegal coal is burned. Shanxi Province, in north central China, in one area that is being especially hard hit.

'We're dying early here," said Ma Jun Sheng, 43, the only doctor for miles around. ''There's coal dust everywhere, which causes lots of disease -- lung cancer, tuberculosis, asthma. And then there are the accidents. I've been here 16 or 17 years, and there is one every month."

For miles around the village, the soil, plants, and trees are gray with soot. The air is heavy with eye-stinging fumes, and around Ma's clinic the land lies rutted like a prune.

Over the past 10 years, intensive mining by both state-owned and illegal companies has laden the air with particulates and dissipated the local water table, according to residents. As the companies have dug into the earth, they have struck underground water supplies that have drained away.

Since Shanxi is one of the driest places in China, and the Fen River, a local tributary of the mighty Yellow River, ran dry years ago, farming here is almost impossible, Guo said. So many people have done the only thing they could to survive -- they've begun mining illegally for coal themselves.

The ecological crisis feeds on itself. Farmers can no longer make a living on the ruined land so they mine illegal coal which, like all energy sources, is in high demand in China, providing them with much more income than they could earn otherwise.

China may have the most unsustainable economy in the world. Its growth rate is too fast, its power needs so desparate that any effort to clean up power generation is doomed to failure, and its land is being ruined by overuse and dwindling water supplies.

China is a disaster waiting to happen.


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