Welcome to Coal Country

The sign above this swaying wooden bridge reads literally “Young People’s Bridge for Convenience.” The bridge to this coal town was far from convenient, but did allow one to enter the mining village without having to cross one of the main bridges. I watched a woman in high heels walk her way across the wooden slats carrying a child in her arms.
I’ve returned recently from a trip to China’s main coal producing province, Shanxi. Just having done some work on coal in the United States, I thought I was prepared for what I would see in Datong, a city in Shanxi. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Entering Datong by train you can smell the unmistakable odor of burning coal. Its scent is nostalgic, in an earthen sense, as a campfire of burning pine. But burning coal is considerably more toxic, and the air in this region is thick with the smoke of this burning fuel. My nostrils by the end of the day were stuffed with black soot.
Coal mining, like everything being done in China, is on a scale like no other country in the world.
This week I’ll be posting a number of my images from Datong. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll try my best to answer them.

Posted July 25th, 2007 in Uncategorized.


  1. Paul:


    Do you know what they do with the majority of coal that they are mining? Are they exporting any of it, or is it mainly to feed their needs? Are they using it mostly for power. I know that they do have numerous coal power plants, but I don’t know if they get a majority of their power from coal. Do you know if there are any regulations on coal plants? (Scrubbers, Smoke Stack height, coal purity, etc…) If not are they getting pressure from surrounding countries to implement some forms of environmental policy? Is there a predominate jet stream? If so, where does it go? Sorry for all the questions. I am very interested in whether or not environmental regulations can be placed on industry in an emerging nation the size of China without dramatically effecting their growth.

  2. Jim Korpi:

    Loads of good questions. The majority of the coal is being used for electricity production at this point. Take a look at this recent York Times article
    8partner=rssnytemc=rss It talks about a lot of the pollution China is exporting and also the problems with up-and-coming countries like India as well. Placing regulations on China’s coal burning, as a developed country, would be like a alcoholic parent telling their kid not to drink. The problem is, like the NYT article points out, China is burning more coal than US, European Union and Japan put together. To put it into perspective, we get 30% of our energy from the burning of coal. According to the Chinese government, China burns coal for 66.1% of their energy needs. We have a more developed energy portfolio. China is moving quick, but they have a lot of coal. Why switch to anything else. As developed countries the only thing we can do is set an example and export cheap alternatives, like solar… and give incentives to change.

  3. POPs:

    Solar and wind are great alternatives and would help the load although there is not enough sun or wind to quench the thirst of this booming nation.We can only hope that they try to implement policies to improve air quality in the future, with so much coal they are bound to use it till it’s gone.
    Are they not building some of the biggest hydro electric dams in the world? And will this not lead to another environmental catastrophe for future generations?

  4. Jim Korpi:

    They have coal and they will use it. They are building “cleaner” power plants, but the the problems not only lie in what happens when the coal is burned, but most importantly when it is extracted. The extraction process leaves behind a legacy of tortured lives and landscapes. Whether we clean up coal or not is not the question or the answer. Burning coal is a stone age technique for obtaining energy in a digital age. We have the technology and the knowledge. It’s said that enough energy hits the earth every day to power the globe’s needs in a year! Sounds optimistic, but I believe it. The problem lies in affordability of such technology, and also who makes money if we’re all getting our energy from the sun? It’s like a drug dealer, once you’re hooked they only make money on the come back.

  5. Jim Korpi:

    Our politicians have made a priority to place a considerably large amount of funding toward coal research. “Humm, how can we burn this stuff better. Let’s place millions of dollars towards a sollution.” Brilliant people we have working for us, eah? They need to be fired and someone with some brains hired. Let’s make some solutions for the future and lead the world instead of being pushed around and bowing down to OPEC.

  6. Lau:

    Well sometimes unfortunately its true countries use accesible sources of energy that they have in their own country. It makes sense in a way; dont wanna be dependent on others and its cheap. This is why we use gas, both for energy production and our cars. Both Egypt and Ethiopia use the Nile (and argue about it!) for their energy supply. China and Germany have coal.

    Wind up till now is very inefficient; you require lots and lots of windmills to supply just a few households. But, just read about the huge solar project in the Mojave-desert. China has deserts and sun. And money, which they are using now to buy parts of huge British Barclay’s bank. If a rainy country like mine can run traffic lights on solar power; this must be a feasible option for many countries.

  7. POPs:

    Hey Guys
    This is great conversation. I agree in the technology to harness the sun.Great leaps and bounds are being made in the R&D of the solar pannel to make it more efficent and affordable to the general public. There are companys that are starting to mass produce thin pannels which will lower cost.One of the biggest manufacturers is a chinese co. (Go Figure)
    Several european countrys are subsidising solar power unfortunately this is not available to all at this time. The problem seems to lie in BIG OIL COMPANYS.

  8. Lau:

    Well Pops Paul all ‘green’-energy (solar, wind, we dont use water) is subsidized out here, to make sure its the same price as regular (some say ‘grey’) energy. So there’s no reason not to change to the green-option. Most people I hang out with did.

    I do believe that technology will help us out in the long run. So many new techniques (like keeping CO2 where natural gas used to be underneath our surface), initiatives in the solar world, and with technology processing it gets cheaper and therefore more accessible. Today a report came out that for the 5 most polluting industries (heavy metals, chemical, energy and 2 more that I forgot) in present times its 40% cheaper to cut down emissions than a few years ago. Already 80% of all pollution is ‘caught’; which doubled in the past 10 years.

    Spread the news and make technology accessible to everyone instead of keeping it to yourself to make a huge profit (different subject but same thing goes for medicin).

    Shit, Shell made a 7,6 bln USD profit in just the second quarter!

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