November 29, 2005

Toxic spill heads for Russia, China offers help

By Benjamin Kang Lim and Vivi Lin

BEIJING (Reuters) - Thousands of children returned to
school in China's Harbin city on Tuesday a week after a toxic
spill prompted officials to turn off the water taps and now
threatens supplies for more than a million Russians downstream.

An explosion at a chemical plant in the northeastern
Chinese city of Jilin on November 13 poured 100 tonnes of
cancer-causing benzene compounds into the Songhua river
upstream of Harbin, a city of nine million people.

Officials cut off the water in Harbin before the 80-km
(50-mile) slick arrived. It has since cleared the city but will
arrive at a major city in Russia's far east within days.

Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, reopened its taps on
Sunday after five days. True to his word, provincial governor
Zhang Zuoji drank the first glass of tap water to prove it was
safe, but many residents were sceptical.

The city's 400,000 primary and secondary school students
returned to school on Tuesday after a week-long break with many
bringing bottled water from home, state media said.

"The water was red when it resumed. Now, it's yellow like
the color of tea. It doesn't smell but it's not safe to drink
yet," a 40-year-old resident named Zhou told Reuters by

Last weekend China apologised to Russia for the river water
crisis. It has now agreed to provide monitoring equipment to
its neighbor and help train Russian personnel as the toxic
slick nears the Siberian border, the Chinese State
Environmental Protection Administration said on its Web site.

Russia's environmental watchdog said on Monday the spill
could reach the first Russian settlements in the next two to
three days, while the Emergencies Ministry said it could start
affecting the major Siberian city of Khabarovsk by December

Russian television footage showed shops unloading bottled
water supplies while scientists pushed aside lumps of ice to
test the Amur river, which is fed by the Songhua -- Sungari in
Russian. More than 1 million people could be affected.

Although officials say the slick should be less toxic by
the time it crosses into Russia, chief state epidemiologist
Gennady Onishchenko has noted that the dangerous compounds
would have been diluted faster had the river been in full flow
rather than half-frozen.

Benzene poisoning causes anemia, other blood disorders and
kidney and liver damage.

In Bayan county in suburban Harbin, tests showed the level
of nitro-benzene in the water at 0.1994 milligrams per liter,
10.73 times acceptable levels, the environment administration

(Additional reporting by Judy Hua and by Moscow bureau)