Ulaanbaatar is seeing the clearest start to winter than any we can recall in decades. The strange absence of smog and fumes at the beginning of October brought with it a bizarre sense of hope that perhaps the unwelcome constant that is air pollution might be thwarted off sooner than we expected. Khash-Erdene Bayarsaikhan specially for the UB Post.
But the hope didn’t last long. The smog still engulfs Ulaanbaatar, although admittedly at a lesser rate. The wary Ulaanbaatar residents, who have been fooled into believing numerous government programs for combating air pollution before, were reluctant to have themselves set up for disappointment by having their expectations raised about the outcome of the coal briquettes. Many speculated about how the new coal briquettes which replaced raw coal in the capital’s ger areas would perform when winter’s cold seeps in. And soon enough the reports about carbon monoxide poising caused by briquette burning came spilling in, leading to widespread speculation about the safety of the fuel alternative the government promised would slice air pollution rates by half. So far nine people have reportedly died of carbon monoxide poisoning after burning briquettes to heat their home or workplace in Ulaanbaatar since September, and hundreds have made emergency calls over smoke inhalation.
Capital city and government officials have been running around trying to assure everyone that the coal briquettes are safe to use. They claimed numerous lab tests were done on the newly introduced fuel and all came out positive. The mayor tasked all districts to educate ger area residents on the proper use of briquettes and even promised to spend billions to provide each ger area family with a smoke detector by November 1. But we’re well into the month now and ger area families still don’t have their promised smoke detectors.
Besides concerns over safety and sufficiency of coal briquettes, the authorities noted that there have been many attempts to transport raw coal into the city. The ban on burning and transportation of raw coal become effective in May this year to combat air pollution in the city, which is attributed largely to ger area residents who burn coal and wood in winter to stay warm. The police reported that they are working around the clock at all checkpoints in the city to end attempts to smuggling low-grade coal into the city.
Due to all looming issues linked to coal briquettes and the ban on raw coal in the capital, a public general monitoring hearing took place on Monday to reach a common understanding on the issue. The hearing was attended by government and capital city officials, experts and academics, and representatives of Ulaanbaatar residents.
During the hearing, independent researchers expressed various views about the safety of coal briquettes and commented on its sustainability.
Researcher B.Dulguun said, “The related authorities didn’t conduct any research on the combustion of coal briquettes. They only made chemical analysis and informing residents that there are no issues. If things continue as they are, there is a risk that residents will become victims, which is why I advise that residents maintain their chimneys, insulate their homes, acquire better stoves or keep their existing stoves in good condition. Also, if possible, don’t use masonry stoves. Chimneys need to be higher than 4.1 meters. This will particularly improve air circulation. As for the city authorities, you should reach out to international advisors, they are ready to cooperate.”
Researcher B.Enkhbaatar underlined that the use of coal briquettes is not a sustainable solution to the air pollution issue after explaining the legal implementation procedure of the government’s decision to ban raw coal from the capital.
Ulaanbaatar residents had numerous concerns over how the coal ban was facilitated and described the issues they face on a daily basis.
Resident of 25th khoroo in Bayanzurkh District Ganbold said, “I’m representing my khoroo today. Why was the use of coal briquettes banned in our khoroo? The Ministry of Environment and Tourism and relevant capital city authorities demanded that we use electricity to heat our homes. This requires a lot of money. This violates our human rights and I urge that this action, which discriminates us, be ceased. How can we live like this in the future?”
Chingeltei District resident Jargalsaikhan said, “Over 500 people were subject to carbon monoxide poisoning. Who was held accountable and how? While residents are losing their life, the capital celebrated its 380th anniversary. Each family was given a purchase limit of six sacks of coal briquettes a day. When we request to purchase by ton, it’s not provided. Is there enough fuel supply? Smoke detectors were supposed to be distributed on November 1, but it still hasn’t been distributed. When will detectors be given out?”
Mayor S.Amarsaikhan promptly responded, “The researchers in the relevant sector are reviewing which is device is best suited to our country. Smoke detectors will be distributed to residents within this month.”
During the hearing, the police addressed resident’s concerns about the safety of coal briquettes due to hundreds of reports of carbon monoxide poisoning.
According to the police, in the last decade, 158 people had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and highlighted that since October 19, such deaths have not occurred. They also noted that calls regarding carbon monoxide poisoning have decreased each week. The police data breakdown showed that 73 people had died due to malfunctioning masonry stoves. The main reason for carbon monoxide poisoning was blocked, punctured, non-maintained or short chimneys, and putting too much fuel into stoves.
Many residents were worried about the supply of coal briquettes and whether there is enough to last throughout winter.
A resident of 11th khoroo of Bayanzurkh District asked, “It’s not clear if the agreement between TavanTolgoiTulsh (the sole manufacturer of coal briquettes) and the government is solid. When the government changes after the election next year, where will we buy briquettes from? Wouldn’t the risk of smoke inhalation increase when the winter cold becomes intense and stove air circulation becomes lower? Why are coal briquettes burning only halfway and the rest is emitting foul odor?”
A spokesperson for TavanTolgoiTulsh responded, “The agreement is for 600,000 to 800,000 tons of fuel a year. We reached a spoken agreement with the government to extend our supply agreement by five years, which is why residents can rest easy within this period. You asked why half of briquettes are burning halfway and why there is so much ash leftover. This was by design so that it would burn longer, meaning residents would need less of it. If we made it bigger or smaller, or with a hole in the middle, it will burn completely and produce less ash. This means you will need more of it. We designed it so as to save your money. We received many complaints about headaches [after burning coal briquettes]. When we performed combustion tests, the results met requirements. The binding substance is natural and does not pose health risks. In winter’s intense cold, the air circulation inside the stove increases, which is why we believe the risk of smoke inhalation will decrease.”
Some residents did not agree with the explanation and said the briquettes contain harmful substances, the risks of which are being pushed onto residents.
At the hearing, the laboratories of the Customs Office and the Mongolian University of Science and Technology assured that the coal briquettes passed all tests.
At the moment, the safety of briquettes use is the number one concern those pushing for the end of the coal ban cite. A recent report by Unuudur revealed that ger area residents are generally neglecting to maintain their stoves, implying that carbon monoxide poisoning cases should not entirely be blamed on the quality of briquettes.
When Unuudur journalists accompanied a stove maintenance worker of the Service Center under TavanTolgoiTulsh, they discovered that ger area residents hardly ever perform maintenance on their stoves. The Service Center began operations on September 2 to help ger area families maintain and ensure the safety of their stove. Since starting operation, the center received over 800 calls, inspected over 2,000 households, and serviced the stoves of over 400 families. Their main clients are elderly, single-mother-headed households and at-risk families.
A service center worker said that stoves, in general, should be maintained and inspected every month or two, but they often encounter families who haven’t serviced their stoves and chimneys in two to three years, and in severe cases, over 10 years. This leads to blockage of chimneys and prevents air circulation, leading to risks of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Many say that the carbon monoxide poisoning issue is politicized and inflated as there are many who have an interest in seeing an end to the coal ban, such as coal producers and the opposition party, which doesn’t want the ruling party taking credit for progress in suppressing air pollution. They say nobody paid attention to smoke inhalation deaths before because it was just an unfortunate byproduct of hundreds of thousands of families burning raw coal, and the only reason for the spotlight on such deaths now is because they want to peg it on the new fuel.
Though dismissing it all as a political ploy would be easy, the government needs to concretely convince residents that the briquettes are safe to use, or at least as safe as coal. So far they haven’t been able to do that. On the other hand, residents need to take responsibility for their own lives by properly maintaining and servicing their stoves regularly.
Personally, I didn’t have high expectations that the introduction of coal briquettes would yield the kind of result it did. Granted this year’s cold season started much later than last year, but the air pollution rate is visibly much lower than any year I can recall. Some researchers claimed that air pollution peak period has been reduced by 40 minutes. Already hospitals have reported much lower influenza rates and respiratory disease compared to last year. But this is not the final verdict; we will have to see how this winter fares overall before passing judgment.
Though the raw coal ban and the introduction of briquettes yielded the greatest results in the fight against air pollution, we must realize that it’s not a cure but a band-aid solution to the air pollution crisis. We cannot let a temporary solution be viewed as the final solution but must refocus our efforts into finding a sustainable long-term solution to the crisis that plagues our nation’s capital.