The Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant is the latest pollution-causing factory to move from Beijing's urban district in accordance with a municipal government order aimed at creating a cleaner environment for the 2008 Olympic Games.
A major polluter as well as gas provider in the Chinese capital, the factory supplied 710,000 families and 5,000 hotels with gas in the late 1990s. At one time the number of its registered workers surpassed 9,000.
Operations at the factory never ceased during its 47-year history, continuing to function even during the catastrophic 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, which caused at least 240,000 deaths, 180 kilometers east of Beijing.
But production came to an end on July 15, as a factory manager pressed a button, dumping out the last load of coke. Emotional workers took pictures, but the factory's huge chimneys will no longer send out smoke from Beijing's southeast end.
A Political Star
When Qin Wansuo was hired to the factory in 1974, the first training he received was political. He was told who their clients were - the Great Hall of the People, foreign embassies, big hotels and the Zhongnanhai, where the Chinese central government and Chairman Mao Zedong were seated.
With a list of high-priority customers like this, Qin said he formed the opinion that his factory's normal operation was not just a business but also a political mission.
Since the late 1970s, coal gas was widely promoted inside the city and the amount of private gas users sharply increased. The factory's political influence shifted, but did not fade.
It was a set practice for many years for chief Beijing municipality leaders to visit the factory during the Spring Festival holidays, the most widely celebrated in China. Gas supply problems are one of the few factors that could easily ruin the holiday atmosphere, and the leaders didn't want that to happen.
Later, the factory's role in the city could be best summed up by Qin's metaphor: "When my factory sneezes, the municipality government gets a cold."
Lifelong ties to the environment
For hundreds of years, coal was the primary fuel used for cooking and heating in Beijing. Yellowish-gray smoke enveloped the city around mealtimes. When the Beijing Coking-Chemistry Plant was established in 1959, it was given an historical mission to help people switch from burning lumps of coal to using gas to cook their food and heat their homes.
The dominance of coal and gas energy culminated in 1980s and 90's, after the number of private users in Beijing fanned out in the 1970s. When the plant was established, it only provided gas to some places where the central government was located. The number of private gas consumers increased significantly in the 1970s, and peaked in the 1990s.
At that time, the factory had nearly 10,000 employees working to provide a stable gas supply to city residents and big plants. A small urban railway station was used to transport about 200 daily loads of coal and coke for the factory.
When natural gas was discovered to be a cleaner fuel with rich reserves in North China, coal gas was doomed to fade out.
The natural gas pipeline was first connected to Beijing in 1985, but small-scale natural gas use didn't immediately shake the major role coal gas played in the city.
It wasn't until October of 1997, when natural gas, pumped 860 kilometers away from huge reserves in northern Shaanxi Province finally reached Beijing, that mass commercial supply became possible.
The city's coal gas supply system was gradually replaced, and people became less tolerant of the pollution caused by the factory.
Two of the factory's six furnaces were shut down as of 2002. The last batch of 6,000 coal gas users switched to natural gas on July 4 this year. The rest of the coal gas stored in the factory's reserves will go to a nearby thermo-power generation plant.
The improvement in Beijing's environment from the relocation of the factory will be apparent - cutting down the burning of 2.96 million tons of coal and 4.3 billion cubic meters of exhaust emissions.
"The factory was set up to meet environmental needs, and production was halted for the environment too," a factory official said.
Relocation of Urban Factories
The Beijing municipal government has decided to move all factories away from the urban area and those that create pollution from city before 2008. Many of the city's big factories will be involved in the massive relocation plans.
The biggest name on the list is the Capital Iron and Steel Group, the city's biggest state-owned enterprise that once employed one-tenth of Beijing's production workers.
Located 17 kilometers west of Tian'anmen Square, the Group has launched a 50-billion-yuan relocation project to the Caifeidian port, an island town 300 kilometers east of Beijing. The deadline for the relocation plan is 2010, but all production in Beijing will be stopped during the month-long Olympics if the relocation is not be finished before the Games.
Another big chemical factory to be moved is Beijing Huaer Company Ltd., which was purchased by China Petrol last month for 3.3 billion Yuan.
(China Daily July 27, 2006)