Harbin residents uneasy after pollution scare

Officials declared water safe for drinking on Tuesday in a northern Chinese city where supplies to 3,8-million people were shut down for five days after a pollution scare in a nearby river, but residents remained wary about taking their first sips.

“Harbin’s water is now safe to use and drink,” Xiu Tinggong, vice-director of the city’s health-inspection bureau, said on local television. “Everybody can rest assured that the water is safe.”

But many residents decided not to drink it yet, just in case.

“We still can’t be sure that it’s safe,” said bank worker Sun Ning as she loaded a shopping cart with bottled water for her household. “It’s not that we don’t trust the government, but we are still not totally at ease.”

By the riverside, a retired worker who would only give his surname, Su, walked home with fresh vegetables that he planned to wash in bottled, not tap water.

“They said it’s safe, so who am I to differ?” Su said, but added that he wouldn’t use water from the faucet until he heard from his neighbours that it was safe.

Running water was turned back on in Harbin, the capital of north-eastern Heilongjiang province, on Sunday after supplies were shut down following a November 13 explosion at a nearby chemical plant that spewed toxins in the Songhua River.

Officials initially warned that the water wasn’t immediately safe to drink after lying in underground pipes for five days.

Even as water was deemed safe in Harbin, supplies to more communities along the river were cut off as the 80km-long stretch of cancer-causing benzene moved its way downstream toward Russia.
Authorities there are bracing for the spill to reach the border within days.

Beijing has offered no estimates on how many people rely on the Songhua for drinking water.

On Monday, 10 000 people downstream in Yilan county were without water service, China Central Television reported.

The November 13 explosion upstream in the city of Jilin killed five people and spewed about 100 tonnes of benzene into the river, authorities have said.

In Harbin, the ice-capped Songhua River showed no sign of the tonnes of benzene and related chemicals that had recently flowed through.

A kite-seller in Stalin Park named Wu De shrugged off the pollution scare, saying that it was a “small thing” that hadn’t impacted his life at all.

“When the pollution passed, no one could tell,” he said. “There was no smell.”

But the spill created a political disaster for President Hu Jintao, who has promised greater government accountability in the face of endemic corruption and recurrent public health scares like bird flu.

The disaster also highlighted the costs of China’s breakneck economic development, which has lifted millions out of poverty but left environmental protection in shambles.

Hu’s government issued embarrassing apologies to China’s public and to Russia, where the nation’s emergency agency said on Monday it is preparing to switch off running water and airlift activated carbon for use in water-treatment facilities to help absorb the spill.

The Songhua River flows into the larger Heilong River, which is called the Amur in Russia.

Russia’s emergency situations ministry said the pollutants could affect 70 Russian cities and villages with a total of more than one million residents along the Amur River, including Khabarovsk, a city of 580 000.

Officials said the benzene spill is expected to reach Khabarovsk between December 10 and 12—or sooner.

China’s usually docile state-run newspapers have accused officials of lying about and trying to conceal the spill following the chemical-plant blast.

But on Monday, coverage on state-run television in Harbin was upbeat—with a variety show celebrating the return of water. Young women in jade-green costumes danced with empty 40-litre water bottles on their shoulders. A comedian played with a giant squirt gun.—Sapa-AP

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