January 24, 2006

China says dozens of chemical plants pose hazards

By Lindsay Beck

BEIJING (Reuters) - Dozens of Chinese chemical plants pose
safety hazards, China's environment chief said on Tuesday, just
months after an explosion at one such plant poisoned a river
that was a source of drinking water for millions.

Zhou Shengxian said the government has surveyed plants
across the country after the blast last November poured benzene
compounds into the Songhua River.

The government found more than half were located along its
two major river basins, the Yellow and Yangtze, and many did
not meet standards.

"Since the locations are quite a big problem, we need to
take measures to avoid any future consequences of possible
accidents," Zhou told a news conference.

Many of the plants had not undertaken environmental impact
assessments, were built in inappropriate locations and more
than 100 were found to have what Zhou termed obvious
environmental safety risks.

He said the problems were being investigated but that
information on which plants posed risks would not be made
available until an appropriate time after the Lunar New Year
holiday, which begins on January 29.

Millions of Chinese were without drinking water for days
after the explosion at a plant in northeastern Jilin sent 100
tonnes of cancer-causing benzene compounds into the Songhua
River, which flows toward Russia.

The accident was not initially reported, bringing into
focus China's lack of transparency and prompting its top
environment chief to resign, to be replaced by Zhou.

A vice mayor in charge of evacuating Jilin who had said the
Songhua accident would not cause widespread pollution, is also
believed to have hanged himself.

Zhou said the State Environmental Protection
Administration's interim assessment of the Songhua River spill
showed fish in the river and livestock along its banks were
safe to eat and that no nitro-benzene was found in the area's
groundwater wells.

But the United Nations Environment Programme has said the
spring thaw could release more toxins into the water.

Chinese officials played down the threat.

"The nitro-benzene concentration in the river may rise
(when the ice thaws), but it will not exceed national standards
on a large-scale," Chen Jining of Tsinghua University's
Institute of Environmental Science and Engineering, told the

"Even in the rare cases levels are beyond standards in some
places, we also have the technology in place, for example,
activated carbon, to ensure safe drinking water supplies," he

Zhou conceded that for many years China had valued economic
growth over the environment, saying priorities were now being
shifted to give weight to issues such as pollution.

"The Chinese government has made a very timely and
determined decision to stop the conventional approach of
development, which could be characterized as 'pollution and
destruction first, treatment later'," he said.