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UPDATED: July 21, 2014 NO. 30 JULY 24, 2014
The Burning Question
Waste incinerators, efficient at garbage disposal, are met with a skeptical public
By Wang Hairong

On May 10, thousands of people took to the streets in Yuhang District of Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province, to protest against a garbage incinerator planned in the area. The facility was expected to be the largest in Asia upon its completion, with an ablility to burn around one third of the garbage generated in Hangzhou.

The Hangzhou Municipal Government said that 10 protestors and 29 police officers were injured in the incident. Police detained 53 individuals on charges of disturbing public order, provoking trouble and obstructing public functions.

The government of Yuhang District announced on May 11 that they would halt construction of the plant, which is still in the planning phase, until it "gains public support and legal approval."

Hangzhou produces a daily average of 8,400 tons of solid waste, of which 5,400 tons are buried in the largest landfill in the city. Nonetheless, the landfill will be full in just four years, said Zhang Shukong, Deputy Director of the Solid Waste Center of the Hangzhou Municipal Commission of City Administration.

Currently, the city has four garbage incinerators, which are all operating at full capacity. Zhang stressed that building new treatment facilities is necessary.

In January 2011, Beijing's Haidian District Government also gave up a plan to build an incinerator in Liulitun.

After the plan was unveiled in 2006, it encountered four years of strong resistance from local residents concerned about health hazards posed by emissions from incineration. They petitioned to the national environment watchdog and gathered more than 10,000 signatures to protest against the project, objecting that the proposed incinerator was to be located only 1km from an important drinking water source and close to a residential area.

Experts have stated that garbage incineration is not as risky as the public have perceived since most dioxins are destroyed when the furnace temperature exceeds 850 degrees Celsius.

Lu said that when the Guangzhou No.1 Resource Thermo Power Plant was under construction, residents in the vicinity were also worried about pollution from dioxins. Monitoring of emissions from the past year of operation shows that as long as the furnace temperature is above 850 degrees Celsius, dioxins are destroyed within two seconds, and the emissions can meet EU2000 standards.

According to Nie Yongfeng, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Environment, incineration is currently the best available garbage disposal technology. He said that although China allows existing incinerators to emit 10 times as much dioxins as the EU standards, the amount is still within the safe intake level specified by the World Health Organization.

On May 16, the Chinese Government released new standards for pollution control regarding municipal waste incineration. Since July 1, new garbage incinerators are required to meet the new standards whereas those already in operation are required to meet the new standards by 2016. The new standard for dioxin emission is as stringent as the EU2000 standards that the Guangzhou plant meets.

Enhancing transparency

Researcher Jiang with the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences said that the public are opposed to garbage incinerators partly out of their distrust in the government's ability to supervise incinerators and ensure their compliance with standards.

In addition to dioxin, incinerators also discharge other pollutants such as sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrogen chloride as well as ash, said Tian Qian, an official of Beijing-based environmental NGO Friends of Nature. If hazardous waste is not treated properly, they will pose severe environmental risks, she said.

Cen Kefa, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, revealed that at present, dioxin emissions are not monitored in real time, but instead measured around once a year. He recommended introducing online dioxide monitoring technology to ensure incinerators comply with emission standards.

In 2012, Wuhu Ecological Center, an environmental NGO based in east China's Anhui Province, requested environmental authorities to disclose emission monitoring data of 122 solid waste incinerators all over the country. But the center was only able to get data for one third of these incinerators, and dioxin emission data for only 10 percent of the total.

When asked to comment on the anti-incinerator protest in Hangzhou at a press conference held on June 4, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie admitted that some garbage incinerator projects ended in disturbances due to poor planning, rule violations during construction, or a lack of transparency and public participation. He said that failure to answer the public's questions in time would further increase their doubt and distrust.

Li said that the government and relevant companies should carefully study local environmental carrying capacity, choose appropriate sites, disclose all information and receive public supervision.

The Guangzhou Municipal Government has hired 14 residents near the Guangzhou No.1 Resource Thermo Power Plant to monitor its emissions, Lu said. The government has equipped the supervisors with cameras, trained them and given them permits to enter the plant at any time. They are expected to report anomalies and can take samples and invite qualified third-party organizations to test the samples.

An electronic screen at the plant's gate displays updated data on a number of pollutants such as hydrogen chloride, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide and soot. In an effort to boost transparency and enhance public understanding of waste incineration, the waste incinerator also opens its doors regularly to members of the general public.

Email us at: wanghairong@bjreview.com

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