November 18, 2016
Tehran shut its elementary schools Monday as the first temperature inversion of the winter trapped pollutants in the capital city and made life a choking misery.
A blanket of brown-white smog descended on the capital Sunday, blocking any view of the mountains and forcing many of the 14 million residents to retreat indoors or don face masks in the street.
The pollution in Tehran hit 156 on the Air Quality Index of PM2.5 airborne particles, over the 150 considered “unhealthy” for the general public.
Tehran was not the only city to experience the heavy pollution, In Esfahan, the level hit 167.
Officials apologized to foreign visitors for the bleak conditions. “We hope our people’s hospitality wipes the grey image of Tehran’s beautiful attractions from their minds,” the capital’s tourism boss, Rajab-Ali Khosrow-abadi, told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).
Kindergartens and primary schools in Tehran were ordered to stay closed Monday and Tuesday, and traffic restrictions were tightened.
Ambulances were deployed to the busiest and dirtiest areas to await calls amid warnings that children, the elderly and those with existing health conditions were at particular risk.
“Since no one does anything, every year the problem gets worse. The government should block old cars. We must improve public transport,” Zeynab Nazari, a first-year sociology student, told Agence France Presse (AFP).
Every winter, Tehran suffers from heavy pollution caused by what is known as “temperature inversion.” The phenomenon sees a layer of warm air above the city trapping pollution from some 10 million cars and motorbikes in the cooler air at ground level.
Tehran Mayor Moham-mad-Baqer Qalibaf rode the Metro to work Sunday in a bid to encourage people to use public transport. Qalibaf complained that the Metro doesn’t extend into every corner of the capital because it is not sufficiently funded by the central government, forcing millions to rely on cars.
Some expect Qalibaf to challenge Hassan Rohani for the presidency in the elections next May, so it is in his interest to blame the pollution problem on the central government rather than the city.
Pollution has become a political football in recent years, with Principleists and Reformists blaming each other for the problem. Hardliners accuse Reformist Vice President Masumeh Ebtekar, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency, of not doing enough.
The ultra-conservative daily Vatan-e Emruz Monday said 70 percent of the deaths in Tehran were linked to pollution, which wouldn’t seem to leave much room for cancer, strokes and heart attacks, let alone traffic accidents.
The Health Ministry estimated that pollution in 2012 contributed to the premature deaths of 4,500 people in Tehran and about 80,000 across the country, not a very large number given the population.
Ebtekar, in an Instagram post, said various measures to reduce factory pollution and provide cleaner petrol had led to “significant” improvements.
The brick kilns of southern Tehran that long filled the air with soot were closed decades ago. The Shah started that effort.
In the last decade, when the pollution problem rose to immense proportions, most of the blame was put on the ersatz gasoline produced in some of Iran’s petrochemical plants in an effort to save the money spent on importing gasoline (and selling it for less than cost in service stations). It was almost universally agreed that the ersatz gasoline contained immense qualities of pollutants.
The resort to the petrochemical plants to make ersatz gasoline was announced by the Ahmadi-nejad Administration on September 7, 2010, when members of the US Congress came to believe they could put a stranglehold on the Islamic Republic by cutting off its gasoline imports. That dream went nowhere as the ersatz gasoline quickly filled the gap.
But before long, the public was complaining about increased air pollution and blame quickly was laid on the ersatz gasoline. The Ahmadi-nejad Administration dismissed that talk, but many publications quoted scientists as saying the ersatz gasoline was indeed at fault.
The Ahmadi-nejad Administration dealt with those public complaints by simply claiming in January 2011 that production of the ersatz gasoline had stopped. But it hadn’t.
In April 2014,after President Rohani took office, the Oil Ministry announced plans to stop producing ersatz gasoline in petrochemical plants and to triple imports of gasoline to make up the difference.
This was part of an ideological debate over whether the greater evil was being dependent on imports or harming the health of Iranians with heavily polluting ersatz gasoline.
Abbas Kazemi, then the managing director of the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Co. (NIORDC), announced that Iran was then using almost 70 million liters of gasoline each day, of which almost 60 million was refined locally from crude, 6.5 million created in petrochemical plants and 3.5 million imported.
Kazemi said the petrochemical plants would stop making any gasoline and imports would be tripled to 10 million liters a day, as soon as the cabinet approved funds for the imports. That approval was reported weeks later and the production of ersatz gasoline ostensibly ended in the summer of 2014.
Yet the first dangerous pollution levels of this winter were reported November 13—five weeks before the start of winter and far earlier than in recent winters when ersatz gasoline was blamed.
More attention has now turned to Iran’s carmakers, who have been reluctant to introduce cleaner engines, while foreign cars are kept to a minimum by high tariffs. The government has not forced carmakers to make cleaner cars.
The government, has, however, turned against dirty motorcycles and has raised the standards for motorcycle engine emissions. Iran has huge numbers of motorcycles on the roads and some analysts say they produce more pollutants than cars.
A long time issue has been the inadequate production of gasoline in Iran, which forced the regime to resort to ersatz gasoline and fuel imports. The regime decided decades back to boost the production of cars, responding to public demand. But it didn’t launch a corresponding increase in refinery capacity.
Iran has had a major expansion of oil refining capacity under way only for a decade, since 2006. The expansion was to be completed in 2011. But in August 2008, Mohsen Alagheband, executive director of the Oil Refining Industry Symposium, said the program would not be finished until 2014.
In 2009, Deputy Oil Minister Nureddin Shahnazi-zadeh said self-sufficiency in gasoline would be realized in 2012.
In 2010, he said self-sufficiency would “hopefully” arrive by Now Ruz 2013. But Iran is still importing gasoline, with the latest prediction being that imports will end by Now Ruz 2017.
Money is the key. In 2010, the daily Hamshahri quoted the manager of the Khuzestan refinery project as saying he was way short of capital to carry out his project, one of eight major refinery projects underway.
Hamshahri said the funding program for the refinery expansion projects called for the government to put up only 20 percent of the required capital with the remaining 80 percent to come from investors, both domestic and foreign.