Official promises clean air in time for Beijing Olympics

BEIJING – Beijing will meet its pledge to have clean air for the Summer Olympics, an environmental official said yesterday, downplaying worries the city’s notorious smog will overshadow the Games.

State Environmental Protection Administration Vice Minister Zhang Lijun said measures to cut pollution in Beijing and surrounding areas are being intensified to ensure the city’s air is up to the required standards.

Zhang’s claim came a day after world marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia said he would almost certainly skip the long-distance running event in Beijing because of the city’s poor air quality.

Considered the world’s best distance runner, the 34-year-old Gebrselassie – who has asthma – fears his health could be damaged by running through the streets of the Chinese capital. He said he would make a final decision in May.

China’s double-digit economic growth has come with a surge in heavily polluting industries such as manufacturing and energy. The country is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most heavily polluted cities.

“After we have implemented all the measures, there is no problem for Beijing to meet the standards. We can deliver on our commitment,” Zhang said a news conference held on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature.

The measures include requiring Beijing and Tianjin cities and Hebei province to temporarily suspend emissions from some of their most heavily polluting plants, which include cement, steel and coke factories.

The provinces of Shanxi and Shandong, along with the huge Inner Mongolia region, will also be required to restrict their coal-fired emissions, Zhang said.

Zhang said he expects that “by June, we will complete all tasks necessary” to ensure the city will have the required clear air.

To satisfy commitments made in 2001 in its Olympic bid, Beijing will be required to show that it meets international standards on four major pollutants – sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, inhalable particles and chemical oxygen demand, a measure of water pollution.

Regular monitoring of air quality has shown the city has already met the standard for three of the four measures. Only inhalable particles remains below the acceptable level, Zhang said.

Concerns about the capital’s pollution level have dominated preparations by international athletes for the games. Several countries have decided to station their athletes outside China – in some cases in Japan or Korea – for training.

Darryl Seibel, a spokesman for the United States Olympics Committee, said none of the 600 U.S. athletes competing in the Games is planning to withdraw because of the air quality. However, some U.S. athletes have chosen to do their training outside of China – for instance, the powerful U.S. swim team will train in Singapore.