In Visit to Harbin, Chinese Leader Silent on Spill Coverup

A technician examines a water sample collected from a resident's home in Harbin, where water supplies were contaminated by a chemical spill.
A technician examines a water sample collected from a resident's home in Harbin, where water supplies were contaminated by a chemical spill. (By China Photos Via Getty Images)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 27, 2005

HARBIN, China, Nov. 26 -- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made an unannounced visit to this beleaguered city Saturday to pledge his support as a long slick of toxic river water continued moving through town. But he offered no explanation for the government's attempt to cover up a chemical spill that has left millions here without running water for four days.

The visit, the first by a senior Chinese leader to Harbin since Beijing admitted on Wednesday that a "major water pollution incident" had occurred in the region, was the latest move by the ruling Communist Party to repair its image and blunt public outrage caused by initial efforts to conceal the environmental disaster on the Songhua River.

In comments broadcast on state television, Wen said nothing about the delay in disclosing the massive chemical spill, which has also strained relations with neighboring Russia. But he sought to reassure the public that the party was doing everything it could to ensure clean water for residents, and he repeatedly emphasized the importance of releasing information to the public quickly.

"In order to guarantee safe potable water for the masses, the government has decided to adopt and strengthen monitoring, and to promptly share information with the people," he told workers at a municipal water plant in remarks broadcast on the national evening news.

In another clip on the local news, Wen visited the home of an elderly couple in the city and told them that "the most important thing is promptly giving everyone information." He was also quoted as urging local officials in a speech to "explain the truth and the measures the government is taking to the masses."

Wen's words echoed those that he and President Hu Jintao delivered in the spring of 2003 after the Chinese government endured international criticism for trying to conceal the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and ending the coverup only after the virus had begun spreading around the world.

Wen's visit here came as the Chinese government also made a rare public apology to Russia for any harm that might be caused by the 50-mile-long band of contaminated water passing through Harbin and heading downstream toward the Russian border. The Songhua flows into the Heilong River, which becomes the Amur and flows into the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk.

State television showed Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergei Razov in Beijing and reported that he "expressed his sincere apology on behalf of the Chinese government for the possible harm that this major environmental pollution incident could bring to the Russian people downstream."

About 100 tons of benzene and other toxic chemicals spilled into the Songhua after an explosion Nov. 13 at a major petrochemical plant in neighboring Jilin province owned by a subsidiary of one of the government's largest oil firms, China National Petroleum Corp. But company and government officials in Jilin denied that the blast caused any pollution for 10 days as the toxins flowed through a mid-size city and several rural communities.

Exposure to benzene, which is colorless, can cause anemia, some forms of cancer and blood disorders, as well as kidney and liver damage. The government has reported no poisoning cases.

As the pollutants approached Harbin, a city of 3.8 million in Heilongjiang province about 600 miles northeast of Beijing, officials here announced plans Monday to shut down the municipal water supply for repairs. But 12 hours later, they issued another statement admitting that the water was being turned off because of possible pollution in the river.

The conflicting explanations fueled public confusion, prompting a rush to leave the city and panicked buying of bottled water and other supplies. Then anger replaced fear as influential party-run newspapers and magazines published unusually detailed reports exposing the efforts of officials to hide the disaster from the public.

The reports have placed most of the blame for the coverup on the officials in Jilin, and some editorials have bluntly accused them of lying. But in a sign of party infighting, the State Environmental Protection Administration saidthis past week that the Jilin officials handled the spill properly, and the central propaganda department has ordered the media to limit further reporting.

Journalists said the issue was sensitive because of the enormous influence of China National Petroleum Corp., and because it remained unclear whether officials in Beijing, including Hu, Wen and other members of the senior leadership, were briefed on the spill or approved the decision to keep it secret.

Hu Fengbin, a lawyer who filed suit against China National Petroleum Corp. on Friday seeking damages on behalf of a Harbin restaurant owner because of the water shut-off, said provincial and city officials in Harbin had lobbied to disclose the chemical spill but faced resistance from Jilin province and the central government.

By visiting Harbin, Wen appeared to be siding with those in the party who support greater candor on the subject. On state television, he said nothing about the officials in Jilin but expressed support for provincial and party officials in Harbin and praised their handling of the crisis.

Though the Harbin officials lied at first about why they were shutting off the water supply, one state media account said they did so because they were waiting for permission from higher authorities to go public with the chemical spill. The report did not specify who made the decision to end the cover-up but said the instructions came from the State Council, which reports to Wen.

State television showed Wen visiting workers who were digging new wells, testing water and upgrading the city's filtering system. "We absolutely cannot allow a single person to go without drinking water, and we absolutely cannot let a single person drink polluted water," he said.

State media said that the bulk of the polluted water had passed the city and that the government was scheduled to restore the water supply late Sunday night. Concentrations of benzene in the river here have already fallen to safe levels, and those of another toxic compound, nitrobenzene, were also nearing acceptable levels, city officials said.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company