Parliament discusses air pollution, briquettes and future action

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Last Friday, legislators received an official response from the minister of energy regarding the use of briquettes, a high-grade, concentrated type of fuel intended to replace raw coal usage in the capital.

At the beginning of this Parliament session, Deputy Prime Minister U.Enkhtuvshin made an in-depth summary of Ulaanbaatar’s coal ban, its implementation and subsequent city-wide efforts to distribute briquettes, and the unfortunate events that soon followed.

“In accordance with Parliament Decree No. 02 of 2018 titled ‘Addressing air pollution’, Parliament passed Decree No. 62 in 2018, which banned burning of raw coal starting from May 15, 2019 in Bayanzurkh, Songinokhairkhan, Sukhbaatar, Khan-Uul and Chingeltei districts, the ban does not cover 20th khoroo in Bayanzurkh, 21st khoroo in Songinokhairkhan, and 12thto 14th khoroos in Khan-Uul District,” U.Enkhtuvshin said.

“Before this decree went into effect, Ulaanbaatar residents consumed an average of 1.1 million tons of coal each year, produced by Nalaikh and Baganuur coal mines. It was determined that each of the 202,000 ger families located within the six main districts burned 4,000 to 5,000 tons of raw coal every year, and was responsible for 80 percent of the city’s air pollution.

“After many years of fruitless discussion on reducing Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution, Parliament has approved Decree No. 43 in 2018 titled ‘Specific Actions Against Air Pollution’, and Decree No. 62, ‘Banning the Consumption of Raw Coal’ in 2018.”

He then explained the completion of infrastructural work that facilitated the raw coal ban, including a three billion MNT government support for loan interest rates for ger households who borrowed from State Bank, Khan Bank and Xac Bank to upgrade their living conditions. These include replacing their gers with a building, installing electric heaters, additional layers to their dwellings, and replacing pit toilets with eco-toilets.

In 2017, nine large-scale heating infrastructures were installed to connect 139 establishments to the city’s central heating system, which eliminated 68 smaller, independent thermal power plants. This reduced raw coal use by 52,500 tons per year. In 2018, 171 smaller coal-based heating systems were stopped by authorities and instead had them connect to the central power plant, allowing 210 buildings and establishments to begin receiving heat from a centralized system, again, substantially reducing the use of raw coal. Kindergartens and middle schools located in ger districts received 142 filters for the chimneys of their respective heating systems.

Introducing briquettes to Ulaanbaatar

A 2008 report on introducing a high-grade concentrated fuel to replace raw coal was submitted by Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project in collaboration with European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The report recommended the use of briquettes for households, referencing London and Dublin as a suitable precedent. Soon afterward, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization of Japan constructed a small-scale briquette producing plant for Mongolia to conduct studies and produce experimental high-quality, low-weight concentrated fuel. In 2014, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences determined that low-cost, highly efficient compressed fuel that meet all fuel standards may be produced using by-products from Ukhaa Khudag coal processing plant. Compared to coal from Baganuur mine, the new fuel burned for twice as long, had a heat value 1.7 times that of Baganuur coal, which meant the average of 1.1 million tons of coal burned in Ulaanbaatar can be replaced by 600,000 tons of improved fuel. A taskforce was dispatched from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to coal producers in Umnugovi, Darkhan-Uul, Dornogovi, Govisumber and Tuv provinces and determined coal from Energy Resources LLC’s coal processing plant produced coal that was suitable for briquette production. Cabinet then established Tavan Tolgoi Tulsh LLC, which had the capacity to produce 700,000 tons of concentrated fuel and went into operation on November 23, 2018. Currently, the company is utilizing refined coal from Ukhaa Khudag, and has established a city-wide distribution network for its 464,000 briquettes to prepare for winter.

Cabinet actions on implementing coal ban

Since the decree on coal ban went into effect, inspectors halted 5,365 individuals and organizations from burning coal or setting up coal-fueled thermal ovens, allowing them to change to electricity-based heaters where possible. They also stopped sale and transport of coal where the Parliament decree applies. Inspectors set up screening checkpoints in Emeelt, Ulziit, Baruun Turuun, Moringyn Davaa, Gunt, Nalaikh and Takhilt Vehicle Checkpoint, operating 24 hours a day since May 15, 2019 to detect and stop coal transport. Since then, inspectors checked 25,755 vehicles and permitted 113,022.7 tons of coal to the city and stopped 2,883.4 tons of coal without permits from entering the city. 

Deaths related to briquettes

From October 3 to 10, 77 households called emergency services due to dangerous exposure to carbon monoxide released by burning fuel. A total of 169 individuals, which include 73 children, were treated at hospitals -- 20 adult and five children stayed for further treatment, and 144 people were sent home after a brief treatment and advice. A total of six people (four adults and two children) died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning during this time.

In an effort to determine non-standard briquettes, Tavan Togloi Tulsh LLC took 23 samples from 17 retailers in all six central districts, and had them tested in three laboratories under jurisdictions of the Mineral Resources and Petroleum Authority, Mongolian Customs General Administration and the Central Geological Laboratory. The results were issued on October 7, indicating no irregularities.

Currently, samples have been sent to China, South Korea, Japan and Russia for testing. Taskforce members also organized an awareness campaign on the safe use of heating ovens and fuel, and plans to install smoke detectors for all ger households before November 1.

After the summary, Deputy Prime Minister answered a few questions concerning the use of briquettes to lawmakers. He disagreed with legislators who questioned the safety of briquettes, saying its volatile substance is 2.5 times lesser, 1.5 to two times the heat value and has two to 3.7 times less moisture than Baganuur and Nalaikh coal. Also, when burned, coal releases materials that are linked with cancer, which the new, high-quality fuel does not. He also reiterated that the briquettes pass all standards currently in place in Mongolia.

In response to a question on its experimental history, the deputy prime minister said briquettes went through a three-year long experimentation period, and eight khoroos from Songinokhairkhan District had already used them in December of 2018, and now, this is actually their second time using the product.

After the question and answer session, Parliament speaker asked responsible taskforces and agencies in Ulaanbaatar’s briquette undertaking to form an initiative represented by all parties, briquette producers, retailers, residents, private and state agencies, media, and international organizations, in addition to a third-party monitoring unit. He requests that this initiative produced a mid and long-term plan on reducing air pollution, based on recommendations from an Asian Development Bank report titled “Winning the Fight Against Air Pollution in Ulaanbaatar”.

Byambadorj Badrakh