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Output curbs on Tangshan’s mills now the “new normal”?

Entering November, several Chinese provinces and cities, especially those in and around North China’s Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, have issued work plans to counter air pollution in the coming winter months. Notable by its absence however has been Tangshan, the top steelmaking city in Hebei, which as of October 31 had not made any announcement targeting winter restrictions – simply because production clamps on industries for pollution control have long become the “new normal” in the city, pundits suggest.

Every year around this time, the severity of China’s battle against air pollution rachets up a notch for the winter months spanning November till the following March. This is especially the case in the northern part of the country where coal-fired boilers are used to provide heat to households during these cold months, placing an even greater burden on the environment, as Mysteel Global has reported.

As of Thursday, East China’s Shandong province and cities in North China’s Shanxi province, such as Linfen and Jincheng, had all released their respective pollution control measures, with curbs on steelmaker operations being a key component. Even Liuzhou city, in South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, has joined the battle against winter pollution, Mysteel Global noted. But from Tangshan city government on winter curbs for clean air, not a word has been heard.

Last year, Tangshan had formulated its draft of measures to combat winter smog as early as mid-September, as reported, but this year, no announcement relating to the approaching “winter” has been issued by the city’s administrators as of October 31.

“It seems unnecessary as the city issues such announcements every month. Currently every mill in the city has part of its operations restricted,” a steel analyst based in Tangshan commented.

Tangshan, home to 33 integrated steelmakers and nearly 200 steel re-rollers, is a key battlefield for air pollution as it always ranks somewhere in the bottom ten in terms of air quality among the 168 cities regularly checked by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment and thus, is closely monitored by Beijing.  

Since May this year, the Tangshan government has rolled out varied environmental restrictions each month, stringent and lenient, based on the actual atmospheric conditions in that particular month, as Mysteel Global reported.

This is apart from other emergency short-term curbs that Tangshan imposes whenever air quality deteriorates. In October alone, for example, the city had intensified the restrictive measures on polluting industries including steel no fewer than five times.

As of October 31, Mysteel’s latest survey across 138 blast furnaces in Tangshan showed that the capacity utilization rate was 72.8%, up 7.3% on week and 5% on month, but still 7.5% lower on year.

“This year, we have been only able to operate for half of the number of days each month (and) our production and business have been seriously affected,” a steel re-roller based in Tangshan grumbled. Besides integrated mills, steel re-rollers are also the main targets of these air pollution control measures.

In fact, some steel mills are mulling permanently vacating the city due to the frequently imposed production restrictions, Mysteel Global understands. Hebei Jinxi Iron & Steel Group, China’s leading section steel producer headquartered in Beijing, is planning to relocate its steelworks in Tangshan to Fangchenggang city in Guangxi, because the city has been “subject to more stringent environmental protection measures in recent years”, as Mysteel Global reported.

Despite all these efforts, however, in Beijing’s latest monthly air quality ranking published on October 23, Tangshan’s was again the very worst among the 168 cities in terms of September’s performance, and cumulatively over January-September, it was sixth among the bottom ten.

Written by Olivia Zhang, zhangwd@mysteel.com

Edited by Russ McCulloch, russ.mcculloch@mysteel.com