River of poison flows into Chinese city

An 80km-long slick of highly toxic benzene flowed along the icy Songhua river into one of China’s biggest cities on Thursday, contaminating water supplies for up to four million people.

The carcinogenic chemical reached the outskirts of Harbin, capital of China’s north-eastern Heilongjiang province, at about 5am on Thursday, authorities said.

Although water supplies were cut off about 30 hours before the poisoned water reached the city and there were no reports of people being contaminated, the environmental impact of the potential disaster was still unclear.

Schools remained closed in Harbin, residents continued to stockpile bottled water and other basic supplies, and dozens of wells were being dug, even though the government said the toxins would pass through the city by Saturday.

“It will take about 40 hours for the slick to pass through Harbin city,” the Environmental Protection Administration vice-minister, Zhang Lijun, told reporters in Beijing.

However, with the government waiting until Wednesday—10 days after an explosion at an upriver chemical factory that caused the benzene spill—to confirm the potential disaster, some Harbin residents were taking no chances.

“We have stored up at least 15 days of water,” Yang Jun said.

A newspaper seller surnamed Cui said he did not trust the government following its failure to disclose the benzene spill in neighbouring Jilin province quickly.

“We don’t know what’s happening,” Cui said as he sat on the banks of the Songhua in below-freezing temperatures. “They’ve known about this pollution for 10 days, but didn’t say a thing, so no one really knows what else they aren’t telling us.”

Photos of dead fish along the banks of the Songhua also did little to ease environmental fears.

Harbin, which has about 3,8-million urban residents and a total population of about nine million, is highly dependent on the 1 897km Songhua for its water supplies.

In Russia, a state of emergency was set to be put in place in the far east region of Khabarovsk on Friday amid fears the slick would contaminate water supplies for 1,5-million residents there.

Emergency ministry officials in Khabarovsk, which borders Heilonjiang province, said on Thursday the slick is expected to flow along the Songhua into Russia, and then into the bigger Amur River, within days.

Cause of contamination

The contamination was caused by a massive explosion at a PetroChina benzene factory in Jilin province, about 380km upriver from Harbin.

It was still unclear on Thursday how the environmental disaster had impacted Songyuan and Zhaoyuan, two other major Chinese cities between Harbin and Jilin that also depend on the Songhua for water.

The government’s refusal to acknowledge publicly the benzene link until Wednesday had fuelled scenes of panic in Harbin over the weekend and early this week when speculation first surfaced of an impending water stoppage.

Hundreds of thousands of people emptied supermarket shelves of bottled water and food amid rumours of an imminent earthquake, while other residents packed their bags and evacuated the city.

A railway official told the Beijing News more people had left Harbin in recent days than during the National Day Golden Week holiday.

On Thursday, relative calm had been restored after authorities brought in millions of bottles of water, reassuring residents that at least there would be reliable drinking supplies.

The local government said on Thursday it was doing its best to ensure no more scenes of panic.

“We must ensure that the emotions of the people are stable, that the supply and demand of the city’s markets are stable and we must actively respond to any problems that may occur,” Heilongjiang’s top leader, Song Fatang, said.

According to the government, benzene pollution levels on the Songhua river exceeded 103 times national safety levels on November 19, about 130km upriver from Harbin.

The levels of benzene, a carcinogen that can be lethal if someone is exposed to high levels, even in small doses, was expected to enter Harbin at levels about 29 times about safety standards, the government said.—AFP

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