EghtesadOnline: With air pollution hovering above emergency levels in Tehran amid news of widespread low-quality mazut use in power stations, bureaucrats are scapegoating the public and waging blame games.
Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said that because of fuel shortage, refined diesel and mazut have been delivered to power plants.
“This is not a favorable option. The primary fuel source for the plants is Euro-7 diesel, but to fill the gap and keep the plants running, mazut is being used.”
Just like many officials, Zanganeh blamed the public for the high electricity and gas use, stressing that lower consumption can lift the pressure on power plants and reduce their mazut consumption.
Many have questioned the credibility of this narrative. Iran is rich in natural resources and capable of producing and exporting good quality fuel. In fact, Iran has been barred from exporting refined fuel to many destinations by US sanctions. People wonder where good quality fuel is being used and why citizens’ health is not among the top priorities of the government.
For years, Tehran has struggled with toxic smog in the cold season. The bureaucrats’ incompetence or unwillingness to devise working solutions for solving the recurrent air pollution, which makes people sick and cuts lives, has outraged many.
Critics believe that the problem boils down to incompetence and the inherent corruption that prioritize everything over citizens’ lives and health.
However, bureaucrats have mastered the art of passing the buck. For instance, Tehran Mayor Pirouz Hanachi recently said Tehran Municipality should not to be blamed for the toxic air pollution, as other agencies are in charge of decisions causing the problem. However, he does not have the courage to name names and share information with the public. Remaining silent in the face of such atrocities is no less than being complicit.
Just like Zanganeh, Hanachi expects the public to do his job for him and “help curb air pollution”. He has been quoted by IRNA as saying that the temperature inversion phenomenon, which frequently occurs in winter, has buried the city in smog.
“The general public can greatly help curb the situation by minimizing private car use and turning down heating systems,” he recommends.
Reacting to the city lockdown earlier proposed by some officials, Tehran’s mayor said that in dangerous air pollution conditions, such measures only deliver temporary results. He spoke about the downside of “temporary measures” but failed to propose a lasting solution.
Focusing on generalities and blaming other state agencies are the main components of this bureaucratic modus operandi.
Hanachi stressed that air pollution has not occurred overnight and will not go away overnight.
“Curbing air pollution is a comprehensive task involving 19 executives and legislative institutions, and Tehran Municipality’s share of duty and authority is the smallest,” he said.
Speaking at the Tehran City Council on Sunday, Mohammad Alikhani, the head of the council’s Transportation Commission, said the ministries of interior, oil, roads, energy, industries and health, along with the Department of Environment, the Traffic Police and the Institute of Standards and Industrial Research of Iran are all involved in monitoring and controlling air pollution.
“But they have almost failed to fulfill their responsibility in this regard,” he said.
“Although Tehran Municipality is not included in the list [of accountable institutions], it is always the first to be blamed for air pollution."
Noting that TM is mainly tasked with managing public transportation, Alikhani said municipal bodies are not authorized to control the operation of industrial units, fuel quality, the increasing number of dilapidated motorcycles, or the standards of domestically-produced vehicles.
DoE also highlighted the lack of authority as a limiting factor in pollution management. During an online session with environmentalists and university professors, Behzad Ashjaie, a DoE official, said unfortunately, none of the institutions involved in controlling air pollution has been willing to collaborate with the department.
“DoE has no power to oblige them to perform their duties,” he said.
Eqbal Shakeri, a member of TCC’s Construction Commission, suggested that the judiciary should step in to do something about lawlessness.
“Relevant institutions that breach air pollution laws should be punished by fines,” he said.
Shakeri also said creating an integrated urban management system and streamlining the public transportation system in Tehran are key factors in controlling air pollution.
While polluting vehicles are largely blamed for air pollution, Tehran Air Quality Control Company maintains that particulate matters, particularly PM2.5, constitute a large proportion of current atmospheric pollution and vehicles only have a meager 2% share in the capital's air pollution. Industrial units generate a major part of such pollutants.
After the coronavirus outbreak forced many businesses to close, organizations and companies across the board reduced working hours.
Lockdowns reduced traffic, as large numbers of employees started working from home while many were laid off. But the extended period of tough restrictions has had little to no positive impact on air quality.
Pollution continues to plague big Iranian cities, especially Tehran, and blame largely falls on worn-out cars and power plants burning mazut. Rains do help curb pollution for a few days, but smog and pollution return soon. As a result, the weatherman continued to appeal to people, especially those with preexisting conditions and kids to stay indoors.
Clunkers, low-quality new vehicles and old inter-city buses contribute considerably to air pollution. However, power plants using fossil fuels are the main culprits but rarely mentioned by the state broadcaster.
Liquid fuels such as diesel or mazut produce huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Mazut increases the amount of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere, but even if it is not used in thermal power plants, burning diesel is equally harmful due to the greenhouse gases it produces.
According to TAQCC data, in recent years, the pre-coronavirus reopening of schools and universities from September increased intra-city travel and led to a higher concentration of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide.
“This year, due to Covid-19, which has closed schools and universities, and classes were held online, it seems that another factor influencing air pollution since autumn is household gas consumption that has forced large industries and power plants to use liquid fuel instead of natural gas as feedstock,” said Hossein Shahidzadeh, TAQCC’s managing director.
“It has pushed up sulfur dioxide levels in the air on some days, especially in the vicinity of polluting industries,” he added.
During the winter months when temperatures are colder and atmospheric inversions are common, emissions from burning fossil fuels, together with the lack of pollutant dispersion under inversion, intensify winter smog formation.
However, Dariush Golalizadeh, deputy director of the National Center for Climate Change at the Department of Environment, says Tehran's power plants have switched to liquid fuels “but they are using Euro-4 diesel and not mazut”.
Mohammad Rastegari, a DoE deputy, told reporters that the biggest contributing factor to the suffocating air pollution is PM2.5 particles.
PM2.5 is the most harmful pollutant due to its ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstreams unfiltered, causing heart attacks, respiratory disease and premature death.
“Incomplete combustion in car and diesel vehicle engines generates a major part of toxic particles that are more hazardous than other sources of pollution, like house heating systems and factories,” he said.
The spotlight now moves on state-affiliated automakers that have been impervious to all official and unofficial denunciations. The production of low quality cars has been identified as the one of the main sources of pollution, but automakers refuse to take measures to ameliorate the situation simply because no oversight body is powerful enough to penalize them or force them to change their ways.
Under the circumstances, expect the blame game to continue.