Toxic Waste Discharged Into River in Southern China

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 22, 2005

BEIJING, Dec. 21 -- A zinc smelter discharged toxic waste into the Beijiang River in southern China last weekend, forcing one city to order a day-long suspension of water supplies and threatening other cities as the pollution moved downstream, residents and official news media reported Wednesday.

The discharge, which authorities said contained high levels of cadmium, marked China's second environmental crisis in a month. An explosion at a chemical plant in northeastern Jilin province in November sent 100 tons of toxic benzene floating down the Songhua River and caused water service to be cut off for several days in the nearby city of Harbin.

The disasters underlined growing difficulties in maintaining environmental and industrial safety in China. With a booming economy, the Beijing government is having trouble getting growth-minded local officials to enforce environmental and safety regulations.

A resident contacted by telephone in Shaoguan, in the far northern section of southern Guangdong province, said water was cut off all day Tuesday. The taps began running again about 5 p.m., she added.

The official Guangdong television station warned residents at certain points downstream not to drink tap water drawn from the river, which runs about 300 miles southward through the heavily industrialized province until it spills into the Pearl River.

In Yingde, a city of 1 million people 60 miles south of Shaoguan, officials started building a mile-long water pipeline to connect the threatened downtown area with a suburban reservoir isolated from the river-borne pollution, the official New China News Agency reported.

An unnamed government official told the agency that the pipeline should be completed before the polluted waters reach the city distribution system, which is expected to be sometime Thursday. In addition, he said, fire engines and other tanker trunks have been mobilized to carry water to the downtown area, and upstream reservoirs have released water into the river to dilute the pollution.

Environmental protection officials blamed the crisis on waste discharged by a smelter in Shaoguan. The waste, they said, contained up to 10 times the safe level of cadmium, a metal that can damage internal organs and cause cancer.

The official television broadcast Tuesday night said authorities had ordered the plant on Sunday to halt its discharge. But there was no explanation as to why the waste being disposed of contained an unusual amount of cadmium.

The smelter's state-owned parent company, Shenzhen Zonglin Lingnan Nonferrous Metal Co. Ltd., told the Reuters news agency that it was working with environmental officials to control the spill. It suggested that other chemical factories in and around Shaoguan might also have played a role in causing the pollution.

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