February 7, 2006

China officials told to report pollution promptly

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top pollution watchdog will
demand officials report spills within an hour of their outbreak
in an effort to deter cover-ups, the official People's Daily
said on Tuesday.

An unnamed official from the State Environmental Protection
Administration told the paper that officials and executives who
delayed reporting or covered up "sudden environmental
incidents" may face criminal prosecution.

But the official also warned that China will find it near
impossible to avoid serious accidents even after a chemical
spill in November galvanized national concern about the
ecological damage that has accompanied China's industrial boom.

"Due to the geographic distribution of environmental
threats and structural environmental risks, for some time to
come high-risk conditions for sudden environmental incidents
will continue," the official said.

The spill in the Songhua River in far northeast China came
after a blast at a chemical plant near its banks poured 100
tonnes of cancer-causing benzene into the river. It led to the
shutting of water taps in cities and towns in Heilongjiang
province, as well as a emergency measures in Russia, where the
river flows.

Chinese environmental officials have said many other
dangerous factories crowd the sides of China's major rivers.

SEPA received official reports of 45 other pollution
accidents in the two and a half months after the Songhua spill,
and nine were caused by factories illegally expelling
pollutants, the official told the People's Daily.

"The dramatic rise in environmental incidents is far from
random," the official said.

Factories "only concern themselves with their immediate
interests," ignoring pollution hazards, the official said. He
cited a smelter in southern China's Guangdong province that
dumped poisonous chemicals into the Beijiang River in

SEPA has issued guidelines for when and how different kinds
of environment accidents, the official said.

The latest warning from the pollution watchdog came after
its former head, Xie Zhenhua, resigned in early December for
failing to properly report and monitor the Songhua River spill.

The spill drew widespread criticism and law suits over the
government's response, mostly aimed at officials in Jilin
province where the chemical plant is located.

But SEPA officials said at the time they received no
reports from Jilin province officials for three days after the

The Chinese government has promised to improve China's
environmental safeguards and spent billions of yuan on cleaning
up the country's rivers.

But the state-controlled Workers Daily reported on Tuesday
that 4.55 billion yuan ($564 million) spent over 14 years on
cleaning up the Dianchi Lake in southwest China's Yunnan
province has done little to improve water quality.

Stretches of the 310 sq-km lake still have water quality
that is Grade 5 or worse, making it unsuitable for any human
contact or even irrigation, a local environmental official told
the paper.