December 2, 2005

China environment chief resigns over toxic spill

By Brian Rhoads

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's environment chief resigned on
Friday following a two-week crisis over a toxic spill that
polluted a northeast China river, forced the shutdown of
tapwater supplies to millions of Chinese and raised alarm bells
in Russia.

Xie Zhenhua, chief of the State Environmental Protection
Agency since 1993, resigned and was replaced by the former
forestry director Zhou Shengxian, Xinhua news agency said,
citing a statement by the country's cabinet.

State television said Xie had resigned due the
administration's failure to address the crisis. The State
Council, or cabinet, and Communist Party had approved it.

The administration "as the main body for environmental
protection did not pay enough attention and fell short of the
evaluation about the possibly severe results out of the
incident. Thus, it holds the responsibility for the losses,"
China Central Television said.

The high-level reshuffle follows mounting criticism over
the government's handling of the spill -- most of it aimed at
officials in Jilin province -- where a blast at a chemical
plant poured 100 tons of cancer-causing benzene into the
Songhua River on November 13, for failing to report it.

The move is also in line with a campaign by President Hu
Jintao to instill official accountability in the highest levels
of government, dating back to the sacking of the health
minister and Beijing mayor after a cover-up of the deadly
outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003.

The environmental protection administration said from
November 14 to November 17 it received no reports from Jilin
provincial authorities, meaning the "best opportunity" to
control the spill had been lost, the China Daily newspaper
quoted Administration Vice-Minister Wang Yuqing as telling a
national teleconference.

"A reckless pursuit of economic growth and a lack of
emergency response mechanisms have seen China experiencing a
high rate of environmental disasters," Wang was quoted as

The toxic slick forced officials in Harbin, a city of 9
million people downstream from Jilin in Heilongjiang province,
to shut off its water for five days. The slick passed the city
on Sunday and is making its way through Heilongjiang toward the
Russian border.

Caijing Magazine noted in a commentary that Beijing
officially notified Moscow of the problem only on November 22.

The environment director, Xie, had "contended that the
toxic chemicals were gradually diluted as they were carried
down the river, so 'it was not to late' to inform the Russians
then," Caijing said.

"In the realm of foreign relations, however, such an
explanation does not go over too well," it said.

The slick was winding its way northeast toward the Siberian
city of Khabarovsk, through areas populated by millions of
Chinese, and on Friday it was passing through the town of
Dalianhe, where water supplies were cut off on Thursday.

The community of 67,000 was relying on well water and
tapping into supplies from neighboring communities, a town
official said by telephone. Schools were closed and classes
would not likely resume until next Tuesday, when the pollutants
were due to have passed by the town, a teacher said.

Downstream in Jiamusi city, officials shut down a major
water plant near the river serving 2.4 million people to
prevent contamination. They were tapping groundwater and
deepening wells before the belt of pollution reaches, likely by
next Tuesday, Xinhua news agency reported.

Cold weather also was freezing the Songhua, slowing the
movement of the slick, it said.

By the end of November, 36 major pollution accidents had
been reported, the environment administration's Wang said,
warning that there could be more that have gone unreported.

Regional governments were giving tacit consent to
discharges of pollutants into rivers and some had approved
polluting businesses that the central government had banned,
Wang said.

"Local environmental protection bureaus need to increase
their ability and improve their equipment to supervise and
handle pollution," he said.

(Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck and Vivi Lin)