A Slick of Lies

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

ON NOV. 13, A HUGE explosion rocked a petrochemical plant in Jilin, China, northeast of Beijing, killing five workers and releasing about 100 tons of highly toxic chemicals into the nearby Songhua River. A dangerous 50-mile-long slick began floating downriver toward major population centers, including Harbin -- a metropolitan area of 8 million -- and the Russian city of Khabarovsk. Rather than acting to contain the country's latest environmental disaster, Chinese authorities offered a demonstration of why their political system poses a menace to global health.

Officials in Jilin publicly denied any spill of pollutants, while trying to disguise the contamination by releasing reservoir water. Toxic benzene and nitrobenzene, meanwhile, drifted past populated farming areas and the city of Songyuan, where city officials kept the pollution a secret from 400,000 residents who receive their drinking water from the river. Not until six days after the spill, according to one Chinese account, did Jilin inform provincial authorities about the danger to Harbin, 165 miles downstream. City authorities there waited two more days before informing the public, falsely, that the water system was being closed down for routine repairs. The truth came out only on Nov. 23, 10 days after the original accident, when rumors of an imminent earthquake -- apparently triggered by the lack of a plausible explanation for the water shutdown -- led to panic in the city.

When newspapers in Beijing and Shanghai subsequently sought to unearth the story of the coverup, they were ordered by the Communist Party's central propaganda department to cease investigating and use only the information of the official New China News Agency, The Post's Philip P. Pan reported. Thanks to that censorship, it's still not clear whether the lying -- which rivals the failure by the Soviet Union to report the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl -- was the initiative of local officials or whether it was ordered by senior Communist Party leaders. Some Chinese reports said that Harbin failed to report the slick at first because it was waiting for Beijing's permission to tell the truth.

Either way, the story of the spill ought to sound alarms for international health authorities at a time of heightened awareness that environmental accidents, and epidemics, can spread quickly across borders. Thanks to the Chinese coverup, Russian officials have 10 fewer days to prepare for the arrival of the toxic spill. In 2003, China's attempt to hide an outbreak of the respiratory disease SARS contributed to its spread across Asia. Today, as the world worries about a possible flu pandemic, the Chinese government claims that it has recorded only three cases of the avian flu, compared with 91 in neighboring Vietnam. Is it telling the truth? If, once again, it is not, the consequences could be catastrophic.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company