Mon | Dec 4, 2023

Hauling China over the coals

Published:Sunday | March 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM
A woman in wheelchair covers her face as she passes by the iconic Bird's Nest National Stadium - where Jamaica's Usain Bolt achieved Olympic glory six years ago - on a hazy day in Beijing, China, February 23. Beijing and other Chinese cities have been choked with pollutants. - AP

Glenn Tucker, Guest Columnist

The Gleaner recently reported the transportation, works and housing minister, Dr Omar Davies, as having outlined critical steps that will ultimately lead to the signing of a binding agreement with the Chinese company, China Harbour Engineering Company.

Last year, the minister conducted a personal inspection of the Goat Islands and was able to report to a relieved nation that only "... 'two lizad' occupied the islands." No 'lizad' lover myself, I am quite willing to move on to other aspects of this arrangement.

We are told that CHEC will generate its own electricity - using coal! My concern now is not just for the reclusive reptiles but for the rest of us, our plants and animals. China is, and will remain, the world's foremost producer and consumer of coal. The vast resources, the economic, political and social imperatives for using indigenous fuels, and the increasing internal demand for energy will ensure a major role for coal well into the next century.

Coal is the main motor of China's economic growth. But writing for The Energy Challenge in 2006, journalists Keith Bradsher and David Barboza started their article this way: "One of China's lesser-known exports is a dangerous brew of soot, toxic chemicals and climate-changing gases from the smokestacks of coal burning power plants." That's not surprising. Emitting 6,018 million tonnes of gases each year, China is the world's most polluting country. Four of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese residents die or are seriously impaired each year because of cancer and respiratory illnesses. And coal is the main offender. Toxic emissions from coal in northern China have been known to end up as far away as Oregon in the United States.

Clean coal technology

The minister is likely to mention clean coal technology. And he would be truthful in that this was proposed in China as part of its 'Agenda 21' plan for sustainable development. But what is also true is that that was two decades ago, and despite an extensive regulatory network, the Chinese government has had limited success in enforcing environmental regulations. Many outsiders feel that the will does not exist. I am forced to agree, as most of the programmes are understaffed and underfunded.

Coal and coal waste products release at least 20 toxic chemicals which are dangerous if released into the environment. Because of the hydrogenous and nitrogenous components of coal, hydrides and nitrides of carbon and sulphur are also produced during the combustion of coal in air. These include hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and sulphur (SNO3) and other toxic substances.

Wet cooling towers used in coal-fired power stations emit drift and fog which are also of environmental concern. The drift from cooling towers contain respirable suspended particulate matter known to cause deaths from cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular issues, birth defects and premature deaths.

Reduced land fertility

Based on the location of the Goat Islands, it would not be inconceivable that seawater would be used in the cooling towers. This will cause sodium salts to be deposited on nearby lands, converting the land into alkali soil by reducing the fertility of farmlands and corrosion of nearby structures.

I am very concerned that some members of government see these concerns as little more than mischief or opposing for opposing sake. But some of us really do care for our country. The Government can't be faulted for wanting to do what is necessary for sustained development. In recent times - with a sluggish economy and increasing crime, after promising to turn the economy around in a jiffy - the Simpson Miller administration is anxious to show results. Desperate governments do desperate things.

The fear is that in our haste to produce results, we may overlook critical concerns that may come back to haunt us. Pollution - and deaths therefrom - is a major problem in China. It may be the only problem, solutions for which have eluded the Chinese. We need to be extremely careful!

Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Email feedback to and