November 25, 2005

China orders probe into toxic spill

By Chris Buckley

HARBIN, China (Reuters) - The Chinese government sent a team of investigators on Friday to the northeastern city of Harbin as residents endured a third day without tap water after a massive toxic spill contaminated the region's main river.

"The presence of disciplinary officials in the team indicates punishments of irresponsible acts are on the way," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Officials in Harbin said they expected a highly toxic 80-km (50-mile) slick on the Songhua river to flow past the city of nine million, the capital of Heilongjiang province, by Saturday.

An explosion 12 days ago at a petrochemical factory upstream poured an estimated 100 tonnes of benzene and other poisonous substances into the Songhua from which Harbin pumps its water.

The city's water company turned off the taps at midnight on Tuesday, leaving residents to get by on stockpiled reserves and bottled water.

The China Youth Daily said on Friday that shortly after the November 13 blast, environmental protection officials had released water from a reservoir into the Songhua in an attempt to dilute the toxic spill but opted not to warn the public about it.

Toxins in the river flowing through Harbin on Friday were more than 30 times above officially acceptable levels, but experts said the poisons should be diluted downstream where the Songhua converges with other rivers.

In Russia, there were growing fears the Songhua would bring devastating pollution into Russia's river system and threaten the Siberian city of Khabarovsk (population 1.5 million).

In the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, home to 32 million people, an explosion at a chemical plant this week forced the evacuation of 6,000 riverside residents amid fears of benzene contamination, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported.

Environmental protection officials went from house to house in Dianjiang county warning residents not to use water from a nearby river, the daily said. Two schools had suspended classes.

Back in the northeast, frantic efforts were under way to reduce the effects of the spillage, now officially categorized as a "major water pollution incident."

Two reservoirs upstream discharged large volumes of water into the river to dilute the slick, the Harbin city government Web site said. City workers used picks and axes to break up ice so as to speed up the water flow and carry the pollution away.

Soldiers and paramilitary police worked at water plants to install charcoal filters that can more effectively absorb nitrobenzene, the main pollutant, it said.


The local government Web site said Harbin had stored 7,150 tonnes of safe water and asked neighboring cities to stop trucking in bottled water. Xinhua said water supplies in Harbin itself could resume partially as early as Sunday.

The dominant sentiment in the city seemed to be grumpy resignation, not panic or outright anger at the government.

"If I wanted to get angry, there'd be a lot more to be angry about," said Sun Haifeng, an unemployed driver clutching an empty bucket and queueing for water.

"At least this time we've been told what to do. The government has controlled the prices of bottled water and is giving us this," Sun said.

Most residents continued to work, shops and restaurants were open and media said 10,000 police were patrolling the streets.

Local hospitals had stockpiled antidotes to benzene-related poisoning, Xinhua said. Officials warned residents to be on the lookout for symptoms of benzene poisoning, which can cause anemia, other blood disorders and kidney and liver damage.

China's State Environmental Protection Administration has rejected accusations that local authorities had waited too long before telling residents or Russia about the pollution.

The Songhua runs into Russian territory several hundred kilometers (miles) downstream, and Russia's environmental watchdog said it expected the pollution to arrive there on Tuesday or Wednesday, and to reach the water collection points for Khabarovsk city on Dec 4-5.

The environmental group WWF-Russia issued a statement on Friday saying that it was highly likely that benzol, a substance it described as extremely toxic and carcinogenic, was among the substances dumped into the Songhua.

"There is a severe shortage of information from the Chinese officials about the type of chemicals contaminating the rivers," said WWF-Russia's Toxics Program coordinator Alexey Kokorin. "The coordination of the Russian and Chinese officials is poor."

(Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng and Vivi Lin)