IMAGE: Mount Everest Road
Workers stand on the construction site of the highway to the base of Mount Everest in China's Tibet Autonomous Region on June 28. Paving has since stopped and workers reportedly are only filling in holes on the existing gravel road.
updated 7/28/2007 8:58:23 PM ET 2007-07-29T00:58:23

Environmental experts must conduct a study and give their approval before workers can build a planned paved road up to the Mount Everest base camp, a Tibet government official said Saturday.

The $20 million project — a showcase for the 2008 Olympic torch relay — was to have turned a 67-mile stone-and-dirt path into a blacktop highway that snaked from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 17,060 feet.

But some activists have expressed concern about the road’s environmental impact on the region, where global warming is causing glacial retreat.

“We’ll have to get the environmental specialists’ analysis. After the analysis we will need to seek the approval of the authorities of the nature reserve of Mount Qomolangma,” Hao Peng, vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told reporters, using the Chinese name for Mount Everest.

Hao said it was not clear when a final decision on the road would be made. Workers were now repairing the existing road, and later an environmental impact assessment will be done, he said.

“Environmental protection authorities always have the right to veto this kind of project,” Tibet vice chairman Nima Ciren said at the news conference.

The new highway was to be a major route for tourists and mountaineers, and officials have praised it as a way to make life easier for locals.

Zhang Tianhua, deputy director general of Tibet’s Environmental Protection Bureau, said Friday that workers were filling holes in the existing dirt and stone road, which was built in 1978, and were repairing washed-out portions.

In April, organizers for the Beijing Summer Olympics announced ambitious plans for the longest torch relay in Olympic history — an 85,000-mile, 130-day route that would cross five continents and reach the 29,035-foot summit of Everest, the world’s highest peak.

China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time. Chinese communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951, and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.

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