Toxic Slick Contaminates Water Supply Of Chinese City

A Chinese firefighter gives water to a local resident in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, where officials have cut off the water supply.
A Chinese firefighter gives water to a local resident in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, where officials have cut off the water supply. (By Jason Lee -- Reuters)
By Philip P. Pan and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 25, 2005

HARBIN, China, Nov. 25 -- A 50-mile-long slick of toxic river water moved slowly through this industrial city in China's frigid northeast on Friday, as government officials fended off questions about their slow and secretive response to a chemical spill and millions struggled with the third day of an emergency shutoff of the municipal water supply.

Harbin's mayor, Shi Zhongxin, vowed on the front page of the local newspapers that the city would resume pumping water by Monday at the latest, though he warned that the supply could be intermittent and unsafe for drinking for several more days.

He said the government was strengthening its filtering system and drilling 100 deep wells to keep minimal amounts of safe water flowing to schools, hospitals and the water-based heating systems that keep most people warm here. Officials trucked in more drinking water in plastic bottles and froze prices at 12 cents a liter to avoid gouging.

The crisis dramatized the threat to China's environment created by booming economic growth and, officials acknowledge, frequently inadequate enforcement of anti-pollution and industrial safety rules. A recent government report said that up to 70 percent of China's rivers and lakes have become unacceptably polluted over two decades of swift expansion.

The pollution, which officials said included benzene and nitrobenzene, was in an estimated 100 tons of chemicals that emptied into the Songhua River after an explosion Nov. 13 at the Jilin Petrochemical Co. that killed five workers and injured 70 more. Since then, it has flowed about 165 miles northward, and at about 5 a.m. Thursday reached the point where Harbin's water pumps suck in supplies.

From above Harbin, the river looked like a brown ribbon, with multiple streams flowing around dry farm fields. There was no apparent sign of the colorless pollutants. Large sections of the river were frozen, at least on the surface, which experts said would slow the dispersal and evaporation of the slick.

Zhou Liqun, 35, a cab driver in the city, was among residents who expressed anger. "The chemical factory should be punished for all the trouble it has brought us," he said. "We can't take showers. Because we can't wash dishes, we're eating out of plastic bags."

He said his family had stored enough water to last five or six days in basins, bowls and bottles. "I don't believe the water quality will be normal after four days," he said. "I'll keep buying bottled water."

Other residents said they believed the government's promise but were being careful anyway. "It's not that serious. We've been drinking water from the Songhua River for decades," said Zhu Hong, 40, a physician who was at the airport with her 12-year-old daughter preparing to leave for Beijing.

The State Environmental Protection Administration estimated that it would take about 40 hours for the polluted section of the river to pass through Harbin, a city of 3.8 million people in Heilongjiang province more than 600 miles northeast of Beijing. But other communities downstream also seemed likely to suffer contaminated water supplies in the days and weeks ahead.

Zhang Lanying, director of the Environment and Resource Institute at Jilin University, told the official New China News Agency that nitrobenzene is a particularly toxic pollutant that, if ingested in large amounts, can foster development of leukemia. No immediate cases of illness have been reported.

Harbin officials announced they had dumped a carbon-based powder into the river to counteract the pollution, but it was unclear how effective that could be.

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