China's dirty exports: Mercury and soot

Dust plumes blow across the Pacific from cities and factories and dump pollutants on the Northwest

Friday, November 24, 2006


The enormous dust clouds gather in the Gobi Desert. They sail on Siberian winds to China. They pick up mercury, aerosols and carbon monoxide spewed by Chinese coal plants and factories.

Then every five or six days in spring, eastern China flushes like a gigantic toilet. The dust plumes, now as large as countries, ride high over the Pacific Ocean, pushing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and ozone.

They reach Oregon in less than a week, sullying springtime views at Crater Lake and scattering dust as far as Maine. Researchers climb an ice-encrusted ladder atop Mount Bachelor's Summit Express ski-lift tower and collect the evidence.

Beyond the views, China's contaminants affect Oregon in two key ways:

A growing amount of the greenhouse gases that trap heat, shrink Northwest glaciers and raise ocean levels comes from China.

A substantial share of the mercury that pollutes the Willamette River, making fish unsafe to eat, has traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific.

"It's kind of frustrating because it's limiting our choices here," says Bruce Hope, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality researcher who estimated the share of global mercury reaching the Willamette. "As long as these foreign sources are there -- and God forbid that they should get any bigger -- we'll be hard-pressed."

But China's emissions are getting bigger. It plans to add at least 500 coal plants to more than 2,000 operating already. It spews more soot than any other country.

Yet it's all too easy to blame China for the mess. U.S. consumers, who buy China's goods and use far more resources than the Chinese, share responsibility.

"Americans in our cleverness are not good Boy Scouts," says Greg Carmichael, a University of Iowa atmospheric chemist, "because we've put the latrine upstream of the campsites."

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