Toxic spill taints Beijing’s image

Published November 26, 2005

BEIJING: The release of millions of gallons of toxic liquid into a major city’s water supply, China’s biggest environmental accident in years, is shaping up as a wake-up call for a society that has made huge sacrifices for economic development.

On Thursday, the government defended its handling of the mid-November factory explosion that dumped 100 tons of benzene and other chemicals into northeastern China’s Songhua River.

In a sign of the enormous political stakes, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered that every effort be made to supply the city of Harbin with safe drinking water. In China’s rigid system, such senior leaders rarely address local problems.

The river is the major water source for most of the nine million residents of the greater Harbin area. Taps have been shut off as the pollutants pass through the city, and panicked residents have stocked up on juice, milk, bottled water and instant noodles.

China also sought to reassure neighbouring Russian communities around Khabarovsk, which along with many local Chinese residents criticized an initial information vacuum that forced many to rely on rumours. The Songhua River flows into the Heilong River, which is known as the Amur River when it enters Russia.

Hundreds of Chinese villagers were evacuated on Thursday, and thousands of Harbin residents have fled to other parts of China, according to local media reports, waiting for the 50-mile toxic pool to pass.

The government alerted the public only after huge numbers of dead fish began to surface, 10 days after the Nov. 13 explosion.

Five people died in the initial factory accident, but there have been no deaths reported from the pollutants so far. Local hospitals have stockpiled antidotes to poisoning from benzene, a clear, colourless liquid derived from petroleum that has a sweet odour.

At one point, the river’s nitrobenzene content was 103.6 times higher than normal. Virtually all Chinese rivers are polluted, to varying degrees.

Environmentalists warn that many of the problems caused by the accident could take years to show up, including birth defects and other long-term damage to people, plants and animals.

“The pollution released is very toxic and can cause cancer,” said Mei Jiayong, an official with Greenpeace China. “Hopefully we’ll be lucky this time. But this may be the tip of the iceberg for China’s environment.”

Experts say the jolt has laid bare many of China’s fundamental problems, including corruption, official secrecy, wholesale destruction of the environment and a growing sense that many ‘domestic’ problems can no longer be contained within China’s borders.

“Private factories, public companies — everyone is cutting corners in the rush for money and profits,” said Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta, who swam in the Songhua River as a boy. “This is a wake-up call, the sort of shock that Katrina was for the United States.”

The professor’s father, Jiang Wanli, a 73-year-old retiree living in an assisted-care apartment in Harbin, said some people panicked early in the week when the water was suddenly shut off without a clear explanation.

After the initial confusion, however, the bureaucracy has started to respond. Chinese soldiers are making daily deliveries of water by the truckload. Local authorities have forbade retailers to raise their prices on bottled water and basic supplies.

Drilling equipment is being brought in from neighbouring oilfields to tap the aquifer in the event the river is not cleaned up.

“Instant noodles remain top sellers,” said Zhang Fang, a local magazine editor who filled every container in his house with water before it was cut off. “We’re trying not to waste any. The noodles take very little water and are easy to cook.”

“It’s also rather embarrassing that we can’t take a shower or even wash our hair,” said Song Wei, a photographer living in central Harbin. “For those of us who need to go out and meet people, it’s rather terrible.”

Many people are pointing a finger at the factory, which is owned by the state-run China National Petroleum Corp. It initially denied anything more than local environmental damage. A company official has since apologized to the city.

Critics also say inadequate communication between neighbouring provinces added to the early confusion.

“The accident has exposed many problems in China’s crisis management system,” said Wang Yukai, a professor with Beijing’s National School of Administration.

“The government didn’t give timely information, and its explanation changed several times.”

Many of the factories in northeastern China have cut corners, a pattern seen across the country. Rules passed by the central government in Beijing are all but ignored at the local level, where promotions are often based on economic growth and the completion of boondoggle projects, not sustainable development.

“They kept denying a problem, a delay that only made things worse,” said Ma Jun, an environmental consultant with the Beijing Bo Xin Consulting Co. “As China’s economy races ahead, the risks are rising at least as fast.”—Dawn/Los Angeles Times News Service

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