Beijing Races to Clear Its Skies Before the Olympics China's capital faces an uphill fight to solve its notorious air pollution problem in time for August's Olympic Games, and the government is preparing to ban traffic to keep skies blue. Meanwhile, athletes are bracing for at least some bad air.
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Beijing Races to Clear Its Skies Before the Olympics

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Beijing Races to Clear Its Skies Before the Olympics

Beijing Races to Clear Its Skies Before the Olympics

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

With just 190 days to go until the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese capital is making good progress on its major projects. The hotels, stadiums and subway lines are all on schedule. However, one issue remains, and it's a big one - pollution. Beijing admits it has an uphill fight to solve its air pollution problem before August.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the government is preparing to order cars and trucks off the streets to help.

ANTHONY KUHN: There are some days here after a big wind or rain when you can stand on the street and look all the way across town and see the mountains to the north and west. And then there are days when the smog is so bad, you wipe your nose and your tissue turns black, your eyes and throat burn. And government notices in the newspapers advise you not to go outside if you can possibly help it. Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau official Wang Xiaoming shows us where the government gets its information.

Mr. WANG XIAOMING (Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau official): (Speaking in foreign language).

KUHN: "What you're looking at here is an air quality monitoring station," he says. "There are 27 of these around the city, and each one sends data in real time to our control center." Inside the control center, huge screens on the wall show levels of pollutants at different place throughout the city.

Mr. XIAOMING: (Speaking in foreign language).

KUHN: Wang explains that today's air pollution index is 68 on the scale of zero to 500, with zero being the cleanest. Upstairs, the bureau's deputy director, Du Shaozhong, admits that the city still has a long way to go to clear the air.

Mr. DU SHAOZHONG (Deputy Director, Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau): (Speaking in foreign language).

KUHN: "We're facing up to the fact that Beijing's air quality really needs improvement. But we can definitely say that in recent years, Beijing's air quality has constantly gotten better."

Du says that Beijing has spent nearly $14 billion over the past decade to fight air pollution. The city met its clean air targets on 245 days last year, compared with 177 days in 2000. Du adds that last summer, the city conducted a dress rehearsal for the Olympic Games. It ordered a third of the city's three million cars off the streets and significantly reduced pollution.

Mr. SHAOZHONG: (Speaking in foreign language).

KUHN: "This was also a test of the public's support for traffic controls during the Olympics. Beijing's residents are willing to make this effort for the sake of better air quality."

Mr. DAVID STREETS (Senior Scientist, Argonne National Laboratory): I think they will do a lot of things when it comes to the crunch, and the games are, you know, coming up.

KUHN: David Streets is a senior scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. He has studied Beijing's air pollution and says beating it will require cooperation from other parts of North China.

Mr. STREETS: Our modeling showed that at ground level, concentrations of pollutants from provinces that are fairly close to Beijing are very significant.

KUHN: Already, construction sites and factories in Beijing are preparing to stop work ahead of the Olympics. Lai Ching(ph) is a worker helping to build a new expressway around the city.

Mr. LAI CHING (Chinese worker): (Speaking in foreign language).

KUHN: "We'll take three or four months of vacation," he says, "and go back to work when the Olympics are over. We just have to go with the flow. Everybody will have to take a vacation then whether they want to or not." In a worst-case scenario, some Olympic events may have to be put off for a day or two until the pollution clears. Jill Geer is director of communications for USA Track & Field, a national governing body. She says that athletes are preparing, at least mentally, for some bad air.

Ms. JILL GEER (Director of Communications, USA Track and Field): We're very confident that the Chinese will take the measures necessary to make sure that the air is clear by the time the Olympic Games rolled around. That said, we're working with our athletes to make sure that they know they need to train for possible heat and pollution.

KUHN: The U.S. track team will be training ahead of the games in northeast China's Dalian City, where the air is cleaner. But Geer says that's standard procedure and not related to the pollution. And she adds that the U.S. team has always thrived in adverse conditions, including four years ago in the intense heat of Athens.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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