November 29, 2005

China Offers Help as Toxic Spill Heads for Russia

By Benjamin Kang Lim and Vivi Lin

BEIJING -- Thousands of children returned to school in Harbin on Tuesday a week after a toxic spill in a river obliged officials to cut tap water to the Chinese city. It now threatens supplies for more than a million Russians downstream.

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

Officials turned off the taps 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.

Water supplies returned to Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, 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 skeptical.

"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," Zhou Qicai, a 40-year-old resident, told Reuters by telephone.

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

Last weekend China apologized 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.

"The governments of both countries do not wish for this incident to bring any harm to Sino-Russia relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters.

"Both sides will continue to make efforts and strengthen cooperation to minimize possible harm caused by the pollution," Liu said, adding that the two countries had not discussed the issue of compensation.

China welcomed assistance from international organizations, he said without elaborating.

Russia's environmental watchdog said on Monday the toxic slick could reach the first Russian settlements in the next two to three days. The Emergencies Ministry said it could start affecting the major Siberian city of Khabarovsk by December 10-12.

Russian television footage showed shop staff 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.

Russia is airlifting 50 tonnes of carbon for use in water treatment plants along the Amur, the BBC quoted Russian media as saying.

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 said.

(Additional reporting by Judy Hua and by Moscow bureau)