Toxic Spill Fouls Water Supply for 2 Towns in China

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 2, 2006

BEIJING, Nov. 1 -- An overturned truck spilled tons of toxic material into a river in rural Shaanxi province southwest of Beijing, contaminating a reservoir that supplies water to 28,000 people, Chinese authorities reported Wednesday.

The truck crashed beside the river after its brakes failed, according to the official New China News Agency, citing the provincial environmental bureau. A 33-ton load of petroleum-based creosote seeped into the river, flowed downstream and fouled 70 million cubic feet of water in the Yangjiapo reservoir, the agency said.

Soon after the accident, authorities halted the flow of water from Yangjiapo to the nearby towns of Dazhai and Sandu, the agency said, and began trucking in water to supply the 28,000 people who live in the two communities.

The accident occurred Oct. 26 but was reported only Wednesday. There was no explanation for the delay. Chinese authorities recently announced new regulations barring newspapers from reporting anything but official information in emergencies such as toxic spills, imposing heavy fines on any publications that defy the ban with news of their own.

The Chinese government has sought without much progress to reduce the number of industrial accidents -- oil spills, mine explosions, chemical releases -- that regularly hit towns and cities across the country. In an economy growing at more than 9 percent a year, local officials often have been found to be overlooking safety violations in the name of increased production, leading to frequent accidents despite exhortations from Beijing that the safety rules must be obeyed.

About 20,000 people were evacuated from their homes Wednesday in Anhui province, south of Beijing, after an ammonia leak at a fertilizer factory, the New China News Agency reported. The leak killed one worker and sickened six people, including a 16-year-old middle school student on her way to classes and a pregnant woman in a nearby village, it said.

The leak, which lasted about an hour, allowed the escape of about 10 tons of ammonia, according to Chen Yixin, assistant general manager of the Phosphorus Chemical Industry Group Co. Heavy fog and wind facilitated the ammonia's movement into surrounding villages, he told the agency.

Firefighters shot heavy amounts of water into the area of the leak to combat the gas, the agency said, and the fouled water then flowed into the nearby Huanhe River, posing a risk of contamination. Authorities released extra amounts of water from two upstream reservoirs in an effort to dilute the ammonia.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company