Published on Friday, November 25, 2005 by the Baltimore Sun
China to Probe Handling of Toxic Spill
by Joe McDonald
China sent investigators today to probe the handling of a chemical spill that forced this city to shut off water supply to 3.8 million people, as the usually docile government-run media raised sharp questions over the crisis.
In the southwest, meanwhile, thousands fled the area of another industrial accident for fear of a second toxic leak.
A 50-mile stretch of cancer-causing benzene was slowly winding its way down the Songhua River through Harbin, in China's frigid northeast. Authorities estimate that 100 tons of pollutants were released into the river following a Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion upstream.
Officials kept news of the spill secret for days and initially said they were shutting off water merely for maintenance.
A team of investigators left for Harbin, and those responsible for the spill were expected to be disciplined, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
"Punishments of irresponsible acts are on the way," Xinhua said in a report apparently aimed at easing growing concerns that officials have not done enough to address the crisis
The missteps in Harbin are further straining the credibility of a government grappling with spreading bird flu outbreaks and rising public anger over corruption.
"If information is not given in a timely, accurate and transparent manner, it will leave room for rumors to spread," said a column printed in the China Youth Daily newspaper that gave an account of the local government's misinformation and confusion.
Other papers quoted experts as questioning the government's response, asking how the pollutants reached the river and complaining about the lack of backup water resources and plans for handling such emergencies.
One paper called on Beijing to learn a lesson from its outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which emerged in late 2002. The government was initially criticized for withholding information about the pneumonia-like disease, drawing international criticism.
"The government should tell the public the truth," the Beijing News said in an editorial Thursday. "During SARS, the publication of truthful information turned the situation around."
China has not responded to a U.N. request made earlier this week for information about the spill or an offer to help assess the environmental damage, said Vladimir Sakharov, who heads the Geneva-based Environmental Emergencies Section under the United Nations Environment Program and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"We need basic, official information from the Chinese side, which we do not have," Sakharov said.
Meanwhile, another chemical plant accident hundreds of miles away prompted fears of a second benzene leak and warnings to residents not to drink river water, Xinhua said.
The second incident was in Dianjiang, a county in the southwestern region of Chongqing, where an explosion Thursday at the Yingte Chemical Company killed one worker, Xinhua said. Nearby schools were closed and about 6,000 people were evacuated, the Beijing Daily Messenger reported.
Such incidents highlight the environmental damage caused by China's soaring economic growth and complaints that the secretive communist government fails to enforce safety standards.
Plans to resume water service to Harbin on Saturday would likely have to be scrapped, although it could be restored by Monday, said Du Yuxin, the city's deputy Communist Party secretary.
"We have the confidence and the ability to overcome this difficulty," he said.
State TV sought to depict the situation as under control, showing scores of workers installing new water filtering material at the city's main water plant. They were replacing anthracite with activated carbon, which can absorb more pollutants, China Central Television said.
Some 1,200 tons of activated carbon were trucked into Harbin today, Xinhua said.
The decision to cut off Harbin's water supply Tuesday set off panic-buying that cleared supermarket shelves of bottled water and other beverages. Authorities have since brought in truckloads of drinking water and ordered a price freeze to prevent overcharging.
The government has defended its handling of the spill. The blast killed five people and forced the evacuation of 10,000 others. Authorities cited human error at a tower that processed benzene, a toxic, potentially cancer-causing chemical used in making plastics, detergents and pesticides.
The benzene spill reached Harbin early Thursday and was expected to take 40 hours to clear the city. While benzene levels have fallen, levels of nitrobenzene in the river were more than 17 times acceptable standards Friday, Xinhua said.
In neighboring Russia, concern was growing about 435 miles downstream in the border city of Khabarovsk. Officials told Russia's Itar-Tass news they weren't getting enough information from the Chinese side.
Chinese authorities have placed blame for the disaster squarely on the plant's owner -- China National Petroleum Corp., a state-owned company.
The company apologized for the disaster Thursday in a statement carried by Xinhua. Officials have said company personnel could face criminal charges.
China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person. Hundreds of cities regularly suffer shortages of water for drinking or industry. Protesters in rural areas claim pollution is ruining water supplies and damaging crops.
© 2005 The Baltimore Sun