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Last ditch effort

On my last reporting day in Shanxi our team has split up. I decide to try my luck at getting into a better-run state coal mine. As the option only came up in the morning, I no longer have a translator with me and head off with just a driver and one of the school’s photo instructors who had come up to scope out the area.

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Feeling the environment

Ahh … the joys of a sinus infection, or at least that’s what it seems to be. One fellow reporter develops nosebleeds while my sinus clogs and my breathing is punctuated by coughing fits. I start taking some of the industrial strength antibiotics brought from the U.S., but am unsure whether they will do any good.

Part of my daily routine: I note the color of the water that rinses from my body each morning as I shower. A light grey, or would you call that pewter? I try to take note each day, a mental color chip to compare for the next day. How can so much black come from a sky so white? The less said of ears and cotton swabs the better.

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Escape attempt

We decide to give the village a break and give ourselves a day to digest what we have seen, so our crew heads out early one morning for Pingyao, an ancient town-turned-tourist trap. We bring our still cameras, but my larger video camera is left tucked in the trunk. A mistake.

Halfway to our vacation retreat, the horizon turns fuzzy. A coking plant — where coal is baked before being used in smelting iron — is spewing a sulfur dioxide cloud three stories high that snakes its way a mile downwind. As we cruise closer to the giant cloud, the air cuts through my nostrils like rotten eggs from the wrong side of the river Styx. Speechless, I fire my still camera as quickly as I can while digging out a tiny hand-sized digital video camera. Driving through the cloud, only the occasional “my god” breaks the silence. Born in the early 70s (with SO2 caps already in place in the U.S.), I had never seen pollution being pumped out so blatantly.

This ancient walled town allows us the indulgences of being tourist for a day: American coffee, countless baubles and fake antiques, museums with spiked weapons and statues of calm buddahs, and a few fellow Western faces. I imagine most of these happy tourists never see pollution as blatant as we witnessed that day.

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Know your energy

There is an analogy that creeps around in the back of my mind. Walk through a Chinese market with carcasses hung across the stalls and there is little doubt that the Chinese know the source of their food. The same could be said for their energy—particularly in Shanxi. For many the coal that brings them electricity is mined from directly underneath the villages and towns of the countryside. Homes have piles of coal stacked along their front walls or stacked in courtyards.

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Work comes quickly

Outside of Beijing, the sight of a Westerner arouses interest. I am stared at constantly. Our team has traveled to Taiyuan, the capital of China’s Shanxi Province. I think of Shanxi as the West Virginia of China — though it certainly does not feel like home. Along the miles from Beijing, factories increasingly dot the landscape, which seems to grow drier by the mile. A distinct twinge of sulfur hits me as I step out of the train and my nose tells me I am in coal country.

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Seeing is believing

This spring, CIR reporter Duane Moles traveled to China to report on the environmental effects of the coal mining industry in Shanxi Province. Moles, a native of West Virginia, is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Moles’ reporting journal will appear on The Muckraker blog through next week:

After months of talking with my fellow student reporters about the slew of environmental crises in China, I confront the reality of China’s environment before my feet ever touch the country’s soil. Gliding down through what I thought were clouds, the true nature of environmental degradation materializes as suddenly as the appearance of the Beijing Airport landing strip outside my window. I’m surprised when I see gate and ground transit blurring alongside the plane — because of the “clouds” I thought we were still some 10,000 feet in the air. A fellow reporter who had lived in Beijing for years was shocked at the thickness of the smog. Welcome to China.