December 6, 2005

China vows harsh punishment for toxic spill

BEIJING (Reuters) - China will come down hard on those
responsible for a blast at a chemical plant in northeastern
China which poisoned water supplies for millions of people and
raised alarm bells in Russia, state media said on Wednesday.

Last month's explosion resulted in the flow of 100 tonnes
of cancer-causing benzene compounds into the Songhua river
which provides drinking water for the city of Harbin with a
population of 9 million people.

"Anyone ... found guilty of dereliction of duty, will be
harshly dealt with," Xinhua news agency quoted Li Yizhong, head
of China's work safety watchdog, as saying.

"Those who break the law will be handed over to the
judicial departments," said Li, director of the National Bureau
of Production Safety Supervision Administration.

A government investigation team would probe the blast and
look into why there were no measures to stop the benzene being
discharged into the river, Xinhua said.

"People who are found to have provided false information to
investigators will also be punished severely," added Li, who is
charged as well with improving safety in China's mining
industry, the world's deadliest.

A pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper said that a vice mayor in
Jilin, where the chemical plant was located, had been found
dead at home, though the cause of his death was unknown.

Wang Wei had been in charge of evacuating people after the
blast and had said at the time there had been no pollution, the
Ta Kung Pao said.

Jilin government officials declined to comment.

Last week, Xie Zhenhua, chief of the State Environmental
Protection Administration, resigned because of its failure to
address the crisis, state media said.

A Chinese official held partly responsible for the spill
had already been fired, the company that runs the plant said
this week.

China National Petroleum Corp. dismissed Yu Li, general
manager and party secretary of Jilin PetroChemical Co., for
"having the main responsibility for the accident," it said
through a company owned newspaper.

The Jilin plant had insisted it was not responsible for the
pollution, state media has said. But its parent company has
apologised to residents in Harbin, who were left without water
for nearly a week.

The slick is now winding its way northeast toward the
Siberian city of Khabarovsk, through areas populated by
millions of Chinese, but the cold winter is freezing the
Songhua, slowing its movement.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has written to his Russian
counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov, pledging cooperation with Russia
to deal with the slick, the People's Daily overseas edition

(Additional reporting by Vivi Lin)