December 7, 2005

Chinese toxic spill official found dead

By Ben Blanchard and Vivi Lin

BEIJING (Reuters) - A vice mayor in charge of evacuating a
Chinese city after a chemical plant exploded has been found
dead at home, a city official said on Wednesday, as a toxic
river flow resulting from the accident continued to spread.

Wang Wei, vice mayor in the northeastern city of Jilin, had
been in charge of dealing with the aftermath of the November 13
blast, state media reports said at the time.

Wang was quoted as saying that the accident would not cause
widespread pollution. In fact 100 tons of cancer-causing
benzene compounds spilled into the Songhua river which provides
drinking water for the 9 million people of the city of Harbin.
Tap water supplies had to be shut off for nearly a week.

Official media have reported that anyone guilty of
misconduct over the incident would face harsh punishment.

A government team was investigating the blast and looking
into why measures were not taken to stop the benzene being
discharged into the river, the Xinhua news agency said.

The investigators would also look into attempts to cover up
the gravity of the incident, Xinhua said.

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

Beijing has apologized to Moscow for the pollution, and for
a long delay in sounding the alarm. It has offered its neighbor
equipment and technical assistance to cope with the pollution.

An official at Jilin city hall confirmed Wang's death.

"City officials are meeting to deal with the issue and some
are going to the scene to conduct investigations," he said,
adding that by "the scene" he meant Wang's home.

"After the investigation, we might release the results," he
said, declining to give more details or his name.

Xinhua said on Wednesday that the slick had reached the
outskirts of Jiamusi city, near the Russian border.

The report said residents had begun leaving their homes and
stocking up on drinking water although no pollution had yet
been detected in the city itself.

Li Yizhong, head of China's work safety watchdog, has made
clear that Beijing was ready to take firm action.

"Anyone ... found guilty of dereliction of duty will be
harshly dealt with," Xinhua quoted him 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.

"People who are found to have provided false information to
investigators will also be punished severely," Li said.

The incident has already claimed jobs.

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

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

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